The Sketch: Words do not exist for PM to say he's wrong

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The Independent Online

In a week when it was reported that an Iranian journalist had been given a 14-year prison sentence for insulting the authorities we broke new ground here in Britain.

"Would you wipe someone's bottom for £5 an hour?" the Prime Minister was asked yesterday. That was a first. Even though it was the second time he's been asked it. No journalist has ever enquired of a serving Prime Minister the financial remuneration he or she would require to wipe someone's bottom. Not in public. Goodness knows what Clement Attlee would have made of the question.

Tony Blair didn't answer directly. It's a hard question to answer in the negative without getting drawn into haggling. There is a level, after all, at which any of us would reach for the rubber gloves and the gag suppressant, especially those of us with a £3m mortgage.

Ostensibly, it was a question about the minimum wage. Mr Blair was very keen to talk about the minimum wage. He was so keen he got two people in to share his press conference - some fellow from the Low Pay Commission and (unforgivably) Patricia Hewitt. These two took up the best part of 20 minutes talking about the short-term impact on differentials and the absorption of up-ratings by a robust labour market. Everyone else wanted to talk about Britons' constitutional right not to be arrested and detained by the Minister of the Interior, so this rankled.

Let me oblige the Prime Minister by saying that he was right and we market fundamentalists were wrong to predict a minimum wage would depress employment. In fact, it seems to have drawn people into the labour market by making work pay.

On the other matter - Mr Blair looks less successful. He's obviously on the verge of admitting he was wrong about giving his Interior Minister power of arrest. He's had so little practice at being wrong he looks awkward. He was gabbling. He was babbling. "Let's try and nail this down," a questioner asked. "Are you conceding the principle that a judge should make the decision to authorise detention rather than the Home Secretary?" "I don't think that IS the point of principle," Mr Blair said. He couldn't say he'd been wrong. The words don't exist for him to use. "All I'm saying to you is, I can't give you a definitive answer," he said, definitively.

You have to sympathise a bit. Terrorism's going all wrong for him. The Attorney General's advice on the war is still a live question. And the abuse victims in Iraq who couldn't be found by the Army were turned up by this newspaper in 48 hours. It's not a brilliant start to the election campaign. Perhaps synchronised bottom-wiping by cabinet members would send a clearer message?

Simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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