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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 May, 2004, 12:24 GMT 13:24 UK
Prime minister's questions
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online Political Correspondent

It is no longer just Michael Howard and rebellious anti-war backbenchers Tony Blair has to worry about in question time.

Blair faced cross party questioning on Iraq
Probably for the first time, in the wake of the prisoner abuse scandal, there is dismay at developments in Iraq amongst even those Labour MPs who supported the war.

Michael Howard, therefore, was speaking for more than just the Tory benches when he demanded to know how on earth three months had elapsed between the presentation of the Red Cross report and the prime minister knowing anything about it.

It was a theme taken up by Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, with equal effect - that is, it left many Labour MPs staring at their shoes or muttering into their ties.

Proper grip

There are issues here that many Labour backbenchers, let alone opposition MPs, are uneasy about.

The whole abuse affair has rattled even pro-war MPs. They want to feel reassured that the prime minister has a proper grip on the situation.

Howard pressed Blair over Red Cross report
And, increasingly, they want to see him echoing Foreign Secretary Jack Straw by distancing himself, however slightly, from the US.

While he may reassure them on the first, the second almost certainly will not happen. And the prime minister's responses during question time made this abundantly clear.

He condemned abuses from wherever they came and, as far as the Red Cross report was concerned, stressed all the cases highlighted had been dealt with.

But there was not even the glimmer of a desire to move away from the President over this affair.

Big issues

And, because of the prime minister's past support for the US actions, there probably never can be.

The Labour benches watched these exchanges with interest rather than any knee-jerk tidal wave of support for their leader.

Even the prime minister's assertion that the infamous Mirror newspaper pictures of abuse were "almost certainly fake" did not divert attention.

Things lifted a little when Mr Howard moved onto the pensions scandal - an issue where the prime minister is facing another major rebellion next week.

The Tory leader tried to insist this was not a party political issue, but it did allow for a more traditional show of tribal loyalties by the backbenches.

This is a big issue which affects large numbers of people.

It is easily being overshadowed by Iraq.

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