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Wednesday, 13 February, 2002, 16:15 GMT
Blair's bad sleaze day
Charles Kennedy, Iain Duncan Smith and Tony Blair
Blair insists he was batting for Britain
Nick Assinder

Never mind reports about his supposedly blond highlights - this was Tony Blair's bad sleaze day.

Iain Duncan Smith went straight for the throat over the Mittal affair - and it knocked the prime minister back on his heels.

Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith
Smith targeted Powell
He obviously expected the assault because he had a carefully-scripted putdown. This was not Watergate but Garbagegate, he yelled.

Anyone who knows the government knows that "garbage" is Alastair Campbell's favourite word.

So, just for a millisecond, it was Mr Campbell standing at the despatch box in his master's shoes.

The opposition leader couldn't believe his luck and he pressed home his attack, fingering the PM's chief of staff Jonathan Powell for being at the centre of the controversy.

That got the prime minister's, or was it still Alastair's, dander even further up.

Out of jail card

By now he was so incensed he seemed to lose grip of his brief and persistently talked about the "British company" - his definition of what constitutes British seems flexible in this instance.

Then he had a flash of genuine brilliance, scripted or otherwise, by pointing out that the Tory party was full of people who were "either in jail or had just come out of jail".

It was a great punch which had his own troops baying for more and the Tories staring at their fingernails.

This was stacking up into a genuine bloodfest but, just as things were about to get really interesting, Speaker Michael Martin cut it short.

The Tory leader, clearly eager to redress the balance, was denied a fourth question on sleaze, presumably as part of Mr Martin's controversial campaign to take Question Time out of Jerry Springer territory.

Still Mr Duncan Smith made good with his next set of questions by comparing the rise in street crime unfavourably to that in New York, whose former mayor Rudolph Giuliani was in the public gallery.

Once again Mr Blair appeared taken aback and this time his irritation tied his tongue and he renamed the former mayor Mr Goolyani.

Overall, Mr Duncan Smith had the advantage this week, although the prime minister did show fighting spirit to land the 'Tory prisoner' punch when apparently pinned to the ropes.

See also:

13 Feb 02 | UK Politics
Blair letter 'clinched Mittal deal'
12 Feb 02 | UK Politics
Tory pressure over Mittal row
13 Feb 02 | UK Politics
Tony Blair...blond bombshell?
13 Feb 02 | UK Politics
Vaz set for Commons suspension
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