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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 January, 2004, 13:27 GMT
Prime Ministers Questions

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Michael Howard is always eager to please.

A taste of things to come
So with observers and MPs biting their knuckles in frustration at the delayed arrival of the Hutton report, he did his best to fill the gap.

And if his first question time of 2004 is anything to go by, his Commons clash with Tony Blair which will follow publication of the report, when it does eventually come, promises to be a cracker.

The Tory leader has his sights firmly fixed on the prime minister's heart and clearly believes Hutton might help him pull the trigger.

The danger, however, is that if he fails to hit his target on the day, it will be his own leadership credibility which will be on the line.

And after his performance in question time, he has set himself a pretty tough task.

Less enthusiastic

In effect, he accused the prime minister of lying when he insisted he had not authorised the naming of Dr David Kelly. If that was indeed the case, said Mr Howard, the prime minister would have to resign.

After that, and almost irrespective of what Lord Hutton concludes, it will be difficult for him to take a significantly less serious tack on the day.

And both sides still remember what happened when then Labour leader Neil Kinnock blew his chance to finish off Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in a Commons clash at the height of the Westland scandal almost two decades ago.

His waffling, long-winded and unconvincing performance entirely missed the mark and, as both he and she have since confirmed, let her off the hook.

Still on this occasion it was the prime minister who, frankly, looked uncomfortable, talking about standing by the "totality" of what he had said about the naming of Dr Kelly at the time.

He repeatedly fell back on urging everyone to wait until Lord Hutton reported before trying to cross examine him.

"I can assure the prime minister I am looking forward to that," said Mr Howard.

The prime minister looked slightly less enthusiastic.

He has a perfectly good point when he says it might be reasonable to wait until Lord Hutton reports.

He might even feel confident that the report will not prove fatal to him.

But that is not what this clash was all about.

This was Mr Howard doing what he does best - psyching out his opponent before the big bout.

And that is still the biggest political event of the foreseeable future.




WATCH AND LISTEN
Prime Minister's Questions:
Watch the first of 2004 in full



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