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EDITIONS
Wednesday, 16 October, 2002, 15:21 GMT 16:21 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.

"Shouldn't the leadership end its five year love affair with private finance and get back to basics?" - a backbench dig at Tony Blair - and John Major - from Labour MP David Taylor.

The Labour MPs who greeted Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith with a prolonged: "Ssshhhhhh...."

The reason? Well, Mr Duncan Smith is, as he told his party conference last week, "the quiet man".

And to be fair to him, he allowed himself a chuckle at the welcome from the benches opposite.

Iain Duncan Smith focused his efforts on education. He repeatedly called on Mr Blair to scrap the appeals panel for children excluded from schools, to hand authority back to head teachers.

The Tory leader then called for the government to scrap AS levels, as they were "too easy".

Hitting back at claims by Mr Blair that AS levels were a Tory idea, by saying "if it's wrong, it's wrong". He asked: "Why doesn't he simply accept that the AS level is a failure?".

Charles Kennedy concentrated on Iraq, asking Mr Blair under what circumstances he would refuse to support unilateral US military action against Saddam.

He then asked Mr Blair if he realised the danger of the international coalition becoming fractured, if unilateral action was taken.

Other subjects covered include: The bombing in Bali, a call to sack education secretary Estelle Morris, youth crime in London, business ethics, renewable energy and wind farms, the private finance initiative, firefighters' pay, racist abuse in European football, the suspension of the Northern Ireland assembly, opposition to a new airport near Rugby, in Warwickshire, allegations against Scotland's First Minister Jack McConnell, and yob culture.

Education Secretary Estelle Morris sat impassively as she received a battering over A levels and expulsions from schools.

Not a good week for the education secretary after a terrible month.

Charles Kennedy raised the question many Labour MPs are wondering about - what will the UK do if the US goes head with unilateral action against Iraq.

Some usually outspoken voices on the issue have remained silent following the Bali bombing.

But Mr Kennedy used the session with Mr Blair to quiz the prime minister on what his policy will be.

Which, some might say, is exactly what the session should be all about.

Liberal Democrat Paul Keetch will think twice before he gets up again at Prime Minister's questions in an attempt to score points with his constituents.

Surely he must have known that asking a question about plans to build the country's "largest land-based wind farm" in his back yard would bring him nothing but derision - "Well that will make two of them then" was the most obvious jibe.

But, until the gales (sorry) of laughter erupted around his head, there was no sign from the Hereford MP that he realised what he was saying.

Once he did, of course, he was lost. He had no alternative but to go along with the joke - thereby undermining his bid to fight on behalf of his constituents.

And if that wasn't bad enough he was then blown (and another) out of the water by the prime minister who, clearly having no idea what he was going on about, simply read from a briefing note handed to him at the despatch box and which stated there were no such plans.

And he couldn't resist the temptation to join the howling (last one) mob jeering at Lib Dem windbags.

Shambles

As Mr Keetch got redder and redder, the prime minister said: "We are aware of the Liberal Democrats strong support for...."

"Wind," shouted a rogue voice.

"This is an area I think we can work together on," continued Mr Blair with a smile.

Meanwhile, however, there was the serious stuff and Iain Duncan Smith once again chose the right issue to go with - the shambles in education.

But the self-styled quiet man of politics lived up to his own nickname - and made no audible impact.

He even seemed caught off guard by Tony Blair's new tactic.

Blame

That, by the way, is to claim that the only reason such and such a policy is a complete disaster is because it was introduced by the last Tory government and he just went along with it.

Finally, there was the face of Eric Forth, the Tory blamed by the prime minister for introducing one such policy.

Iain Duncan Smith accepted Mr Forth, who was sitting alongside him, had indeed introduced the policy but added: "When it's wrong, it's wrong."

Mr Forth's face exploded. He looked like a cross between a bulldog chewing a wasp and a gurning Les Dawson.

For the first PMQs since the summer break this was a good start - except for Paul Keetch, Eric Forth and wind farmers.


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