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EDITIONS
Wednesday, 17 July, 2002, 15:20 GMT 16:20 UK
Prime Minister's Questions
BBC News Online's Nick Assinder gives his instant view on the winners and losers during Tony Blair's weekly grilling in the House of Commons.

The prime minister takes the prize for his put down of Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith.

Speaking about extra investment for public services Mr Blair said it was vital to pump extra cash in and would be "folly" to take it out.

"Talking of which......." he added, sitting down in expectation of Mr Duncan Smith rising to ask a question - which indeed he did.

"Would you guarantee to use your best endeavours to ensure that all the parties to the peace process in Northern Ireland take the necessary sacrifices to sustain the peace and to sustain our democratic institutions?" - Eddie McGrady MP

Iain Duncan Smith went on the attack claiming street crime had increased by more than 30% over the last year and had doubled in three years.

He asked if recorded robberies had been cut by 14%. The Tory leader then claimed that since 1997, stockmarkets in Europe and in US had risen by 8%, but in the UK stockmarkets were down 15%.

Charles Kennedy asked whether the House of Commons would be given the chance to debate and vote on future British troop involvement in any further military action against Iraq.

Other issues raised by MPs included: Extending the compensation payment scheme for mesothelioma sufferers; selling arms to African states; the Sikorsky S76 helicopter crash in the North Sea; clamping down on shopkeepers who sell alcohol to underaged drinkers; the safety of the MMR vaccine and sovereignty over Gibraltar.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy got to the core of one of the biggest issues facing the government, picking up on the prime minister's comments on Tuesday on Iraq.

He pressed Mr Blair over whether the Commons would be able to vote on any possible action against Saddam Hussein's regime.

And he asked whether new United Nations' resolutions would be needed in order for any action to be in accordance with international law.

He didn't get a clear answer beyond what the prime minister has already said on the issue.

But he knows that his concerns are shared by many Labour MPs, and the question went to the heart of a subject which could yet cause Mr Blair a very difficult time.

A ticking off for all those on the Labour benches.

They were in a light-hearted mood, no doubt upbeat after Chancellor Gordon Brown's spending spree announcement this week.

Some were exuberant, others were a little smug. A couple delivered fawning speeches hailing the extra investment rather than asking questions.

What they need to remember is that the promised improvements in public services haven't been delivered yet.

Labour backbenchers fearful that Tony Blair is about to lead Britain into a new war with Iraq have finally found a leader to champion their cause.

Unfortunately for them it is not one of their own, but Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy.

Mr Kennedy calmly asked the prime minister if he would seek fresh approval from the UN and the Commons before engaging in such an adventure.

And he received an equally calm answer.

No worries

Britain would do nothing which breached international law, and the government would certainly look at the best way of consulting MPs, the prime minister said.

Or, to put the answer more simply, "no".

So, thanks to Mr Kennedy, those nervous backbenchers are now pretty clear that the US and Britain will not seek a new UN mandate to bomb Saddam and neither will the prime minister put the war to a vote in the Commons.

That will not go down at all well with his party critics, but that probably won't worry Mr Blair terribly much.

'Naff off'

He didn't get where he is today by worrying about snipers on his own benches. Standing shoulder to shoulder with a republican president, however, is a different matter.

Meanwhile, Iain Duncan Smith's previously successful tactic of pinning the prime minister down on his pledges has probably outlived its usefulness.

Mr Blair is now ready for him and, while he still can't answer the questions, he has his retaliation ready - and basically tells Mr Duncan Smith to naff off.


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