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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 April, 2005, 22:16 GMT 23:16 UK
Public pile pressure on leaders
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

It may not have been Mastermind, but for the big three party leaders the Question Time chair must have been just as uncomfortable as that other famous black seat.

Charles Kennedy, Michael Howard and Tony Blair all took the chair to face a live studio audience that was pulling no punches.

It was the closest thing to the American presidential debates Britain is going to get.

Mr Kennedy appeared relatively relaxed and fended off most of the challenges to his policies on taxation, and his leadership style. He even won some support for his stand on the war.

Mr Howard was given a particularly rough ride over immigration and his difficult tightrope act over the war, notably his admission he would have attacked Saddam even if he had known there were no weapons of mass destruction. But he appeared confident, upbeat and on the front foot.

The prime minister appeared more defensive and beleaguered than he has appeared at any stage in this campaign so far

The prime minister was given by far the most hostile reception - probably to be expected for the man who has been running the country for the past eight years.

But, it has to be said, he also gave the impression of a man being given an extremely hard time at the end of an extremely hard day.

'Resign' calls

He faced emotional, angry challenges over the war and the use of the attorney general's advice, with one direct call for him to resign and one questioner calling him a liar to his face.

He was taken aback to discover GPs were trying to meet government targets on waiting times by insisting patients could only make appointments within the 48 hour target period.

And he was angrily challenged over his previous pledge to legislate to stop top-up fees.

And at the end of it all there were jeers and shouts of "coward" from the audience when he refused to agree to a televised face-to-face debate with his rivals.

Piling on agony

The other two leaders had shown signs of the strain such direct confrontations inevitably produce.

The prime minister appeared more defensive and beleaguered than he has appeared at any stage in this campaign so far.

Few would doubt he had just lived through probably the most difficult day of the contest after the Iraq row erupted once again, forcing him to finally publish the attorney general's legal advice.

To end it with the latest chapter in his so-called "masochism strategy" was piling on the agony.

Mr Blair must be hoping this end-of-the-day appearance will have gone some way to closing down this row.

He has, however, been there before.



Watch the Question Time leaders special

What you've said: leaders special
28 Apr 05 |  Election 2005