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EDITIONS
Wednesday, 23 October, 2002, 14:57 GMT 15:57 UK
Prime Minister's Questions
BBC News Online's Nick Assinder gives his instant view on the winners and losers during Tony Blair's weekly grilling in the House of Commons.

"I know he's a quiet man, but I heard that."

Tony Blair, having fun with Iain Duncan Smith's post-conference "quiet man" persona, as the Tory leader disputed the way his question was paraphrased by the prime minister.

"Give him a job"

The quip from a Labour MP as Iain Duncan Smith began a question about the fire strike by saying he had rung the retained firefighters union on Wednesday morning.

Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith led off his attack on the looming firefighters strike, attempting to pin the prime minister down on whether soldiers will be asked to cross picket lines.

He also launched an attack on the culture of targets and waiting lists in the National Health Service, which he claimed was putting lives of patients at risk.

Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy also focused on the firefighters, asking Mr Blair to speed up the independent pay review to head off the dispute.

He also queried press reports that Chancellor Gordon Brown was unwilling to provide extra cash to settle the dispute.

Other subjects raised included: The impact of parenting orders on young offenders, the Mental Health Bill, pensions, the creativity of the Welsh, Iraq, Victim Support, anti-social behaviour and housing benefit reform, the firefighters strike, heroin abuse in former mining communities, a call to ban Sinn Fein from using its Westminister offices.

Conservative Bill Wiggin asked if the prime minister still thought the fire brigade union was "Scargillite" - Mr Blair has reportedly told aides he sees the firefighters strike as harking back to the days of Arthur Scargill, the 1980s "bogey man" of the Left.

Labour's Huw Irranca Davis couldn't resist paraphrasing Under Milk Wood - "praise the Lord we are a creative nation" - in a less than incisive "question" about a new film studio to be built in Wales.

Tony Blair has been reported as describing striking firefighters and others as "Scargillite".

In other words, they are politically motivated militants conspiring to bring down the government.

And few doubt that Mr Blair has used this word in private - both he had his spokesman have pointedly refused to deny it.

But he is reluctant to repeat it in public. And he was particularly eager not to utter the word when challenged during question time.

This was probably because, just moments before, he had been telling Iain Duncan Smith that he was not about to do anything that would exacerbate or inflame (his word) the dispute.

And if there is one thing designed to inflame this dispute it is to start labelling the strikers the new Scargill tendency.

As far as the public is concerned, however, it is probably quite useful for them to be reminded of the antics of the more militant union leaders during the dark days of the 1980s.

It not only propagates a view that they are more interested in taking on the government than representing their workers but it suggests the government has the moral high ground and has no option but to stamp down hard on them.

It's called black propaganda and it's a classic New Labour trick.

Even if that is not what Downing Street is up to, the past behaviour of the prime minister's spin doctors will leave many suspecting this is what is going on.


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