HORRIFIC new evidence emerged yesterday of the sheer human waste caused by early retirement. The Commons saw a Leader of the Opposition who is not just in full working order but plainly at the height of his powers.
Yet, at the age of only 64, Michael Howard is to be pensioned off. This was positively the final appearance of this mighty gladiator at Prime Minister’s Questions, following a period of many months in which the Conservatives have struggled to find a suitable replacement for him.
Mr Howard is worried life will be dull for an active chap like himself at the Duncan Smith Home for Prematurely Retired Leaders, so he made a last ditch attempt to persuade Tony Blair to come with him.
The Labour family has been trying for years to persuade Mr Blair to go into a home and Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is known to be especially anxious to show what a good idea it would be to have an older and more intelligent man at the helm.
So Mr Howard pointed out that Mr Brown is getting everything ready for Mr Blair to go: “The only retirement the Chancellor is planning for is the Prime Minister’s.”
Mr Blair obstinately refused to take the hint, so Mr Howard became more explicit: “Everyone knows that this is my last appearance at this Dispatch Box. What they want to know is how many more appearances are you going to make at that Dispatch Box? Will you confirm today that it is still your intention to serve a full third term?”
But the Prime Minister left his intentions shrouded in mystery. He refused to confirm that he will serve a full third term and instead referred to “all the things that I said before the election and indeed subsequent to the election”.
Most of those things were singularly unenlightening, for Mr Blair’s instinct on this topic is to obfuscate and procrastinate whenever he thinks he can get away with it.
Mr Howard therefore launched his final attack. He pointed out that Mr Blair had once said, “My project will be complete when the Labour party learns to love Peter Mandelson”, and asked after the tumultuous laughter had subsided: “Can you give us a progress report on that?”
Quick as a flash, Mr Blair replied: “I think I may have to say on that one: a lot done, a lot left to do.”
If he is going to stay in power until the Labour Party has learned to love Mr Mandelson, Mr Blair can look forward to several million more years at the top.
Labour must by now realise that Mr Blair will never go of his own volition and is always going to insist that there is “a lot left to do”. One task for Mr Howard’s successor will be to make common cause with the Labour Party to overthrow Mr Blair.
Jo Swinson (Lib Dem, East Dunbartonshire) unfolded a strange vision of the future: “As the Prime Minister says goodbye to his fourth Tory leader is it not time to say goodbye to the Punch and Judy style of Prime Minister’s Questions?”
We bristled at this idea, for we love the brutal knockabout of PMQs, when a reputation can be made or lost in seconds. Miss Swinson is only 25, so we do not blame her for finding this weekly joust about as edifying as a Royal Marines initiation ritual, but those of us who have been around for longer know how PMQs toughens our leaders up and teaches them to fight for their lives in the mud, and provides marvellous entertainment for those of us looking on.
But then we remembered where we had heard Miss Swinson’s plea before. David Cameron has again and again called for “a new style of politics, with less of the Punch and Judy show that younger voters in particular find so alienating”.
As Mr Howard is led away to the knacker’s yard, the bizarre prospect opens before us of a less adversarial Tory leader, who tries to make common cause with men and women of goodwill even if they are in the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats.