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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 September, 2004, 12:05 GMT 13:05 UK
Prime minister's questions
Sketch
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online Political Correspondent

There is a classic comedy sketch in which an interviewee responds to every question he is asked with the answer to the next, as yet unasked question.

It is both very funny and very clever.

Not-so-funny routine from PM
Unfortunately, Tony Blair got it the wrong way around during his weekly argument with Michael Howard.

Rather than answering the question the Tory leader had just asked him, he answered - or more accurately failed to answer - the previous one.

So, when Mr Howard asked him about the rise in the number of people on incapacity benefit, the prime minister attacked him for having presided over an increase in crime during his last period in government.

And when the opposition leader asked him about the rising tax burden, Mr Blair started talking about incapacity benefit.

Befuddled tourists

It was like watching a film where the lip synch is about a minute out - amusing for a while, then massively irritating.

So confusing, in fact, that when Mr Howard asked him about hospital cleanliness, the prime minister spent so long explaining why he had increased taxes, he forgot what the original question was.

And we were subjected to the sight of Mr Blair pleading with his backbenchers, Tory MPs - everybody except the befuddled tourists looking down from the public gallery - what the question had been.

It really didn't matter as he had no intention of answering it anyway.

The inevitable consequence of this tactic, if that is what it was, is that the last question does not get answered at all.

Charles Kennedy
Kennedy won a promise
So Mr Howard's killer question on fox hunting was left hanging in the air.

That was particularly odd as the prime minister's spokesman - refusing to tell journalists how Mr Blair would vote in the key hunting vote - said he would reveal his intentions if asked during question time.

Full answer

Still there were two fairly straight answers.

One was to Charles Kennedy who is pressing for the Gurkhas to be given British citizenship.

The prime minister said he had no problem with it and would give a full answer soon.

The other was to backbencher Andrew Turner who asked what the prime minister was going to do about mange tout - forgive me for not noting down why.

Mr Blair hesitated, looked at his notes and declared: "I don't know. But I'm sure we are doing something."

That's more like it.




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