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Wednesday, 26 June, 2002, 15:00 GMT 16:00 UK
Prime Minister's Questions
Robin Cook, Eric Forth and Paul Tyler
BBC News Online's Nick Assinder gives his instant view on prime minister's questions as Robin Cook stands in for Tony Blair, and Eric Forth takes the lead for the Tories.

Robin Cook, raising the subject of Mr Forth's "own special brand of compassionate Conservatism" asked how he intended to "fill in the form from his leader inviting him to spend a week with vulnerable people in his constituency".

He added: "I would immensely appreciate it if he could tell me what week that is and whether I can come."

For courage under fire at his first appearance at the despatch box at Prime Minister's Question Time it has to be Eric Forth.

He refused to be defeated despite getting his "question" and "answer" mixed up, asking how Mr Cook seems "unable to give a straight question?"

There were howls from both sides. Ben Bradshaw and Jack Straw made "wind up" motions.

Rather than ignoring his error, the Tories' stand-in, by way of apology, and in the process getting the audience back on his side, said: "Well, it is my first and probably only time, Mr Speaker."

He then added: "I was going to go on to say the leader may be representing the prime minister but he doesn't have to impersonate him."

Labour MP Martin Salter brought up the big issue of the day - the accounting fraud at US telecom giant WorldCom, which has 2,500 workers in his Reading West constituency.

The company's problems were compounded by "corporate greed and dishonesty", said Mr Salter.

Conservative shadow Commons leader Eric Forth focused his questions on the damage done by Labour to pension funds and on criminals dodging fines and not serving full sentences.

It was the vexed question of political donations that formed the basis of Liberal Democrat Paul Tyler's offensive.

Other MPs asked about: demands for a special inquiry into the murder of solicitor Pat Finucane; the Middle East conflict; action against people smugglers; the WorldCom accounting "hole"; and the education secretary saying she wouldn't touch some comprehensives with a bargepole.

Eric Forth's choice of tie, a multi-coloured abstract design, was certainly eye catching.

As David Beckham, Ronaldo and a succession of other footballers have shown at the World Cup, it can be quite lucrative to cultivate a distinctive look

Whatever the reason, the choice of tie certainly added the to the general surreal air of the proceedings.

Perhaps Tony Blair should leave the country more regularly - if that is possible.

Thanks to his absence at the G8 summit, the weekly question time clash took on an entirely different, near-carnival atmosphere.

With the prime minister's deputy John Prescott carefully exiled to Brazil, it fell to Robin Cook to take the lead.

And, thanks to the tradition that leaders do not lower themselves by facing combatants of lower stature, he was up against Eric Forth for the Tories and Paul Tyler for the Lib Dems (perhaps this is one tradition Charles Kennedy should abandon).

But Cook versus Forth was always bound to be a more witty, pithy and downright bitchy affair. And backbenchers loved it.

There was no clear winner, but that was irrelevant. It was different, it was entertaining and by 'eck it was fun.

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See also:

15 May 02 | UK Politics
15 May 02 | UK
14 May 02 | UK Politics

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