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EDITIONS
Wednesday, 30 October, 2002, 15:56 GMT
Prime Minister's Questions
BBC News Online's Nyta Mann gives her instant view on the winners and losers during Tony Blair's weekly grilling in the House of Commons.

"Could I ask the prime minister to tell us exactly how rude he was to Monsieur Chirac? Did he perhaps remind him that if the French president was not in the Elysee he would almost certainly be in jail?"

Labour MP Tony Wright referring to Tony Blair's now infamous EU summit bust-up with French President Jacques Chirac.

"We have cracked the problem of pensioners throwing fireworks at each other..."

Nick Palmer, Labour MP for Broxtowe, asking for laws to tackle the misuse of fireworks to be extended to cover the under-18s.

Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith led off on higher education, claiming Mr Blair was at odds with his new education secretary Charles Clarke on the issue of top-up fees for students.

The Tory leader then switched tack to the health service, claiming Mr Blair was "all over the place" on the issue of waiting times in Accident and Emergency departments.

The health department website said there were no more 24 hour waits in A&E, Mr Duncan Smith claimed, while the British Medical Association said this week that 1 in 5 A&E departments have patients waiting for 24 hours.

"Who should we believe, the spin doctors or the real doctors?" asked Mr Duncan Smith, to Tory cheers.

Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy, focused on higher education, asking Mr Blair if top-up fees would create a two-tier university system, discouraging students from poorer backgrounds from entering higher education.

He called on Mr Blair to categorically rule out the introduction of such fees.

Other topics covered include: Sure Start schemes for underprivileged children, fireworks safety legislation, Birmingham's bid for the European city of culture, the UK's relations with France, Iraq, Israel, breast cancer awareness campaign, drug rehabilitation in prisons, safety on army firing ranges, the NHS, cross-channel smuggling, farming, anti-social behaviour, the UK's affordable housing crisis and higher education funding.

Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy, as barracking from Tory MPs reached a peak, paused and, with a nod to the morning's reports that Iain Duncan Smith may face a leadership challenge, said: "It must just be election fever."
Khalid Mahmood asked if the prime minister agreed that Birmingham should be the European city of culture this year and promptly launched into a long list of his city's attractions (more canals than Venice etc).

In the end, with no sign of the 'question' ending, the speaker halted the speech and moved on to the next question without troubling the prime minister for an answer.

A creditable performance from Iain Duncan Smith, especially when you take into account the fresh outbreak of Tory leadership-challenge fever that broke out just in time for his weekly joust with the prime minister.

Mr Duncan Smith's predecessor, William Hague, regularly got the better of Tony Blair in these encounters; the current Conservative leader has not been so fortunate.

But on this occasion he succeeded in exposing the prime minster's unwillingness to give a straight answer on a substantial policy issue: the introduction of university top-up fees.

The issue is thought to have contributed to Estelle Morris's decision to resign as education secretary last week. She was strongly against them; Mr Blair, and his Downing Street advisers - who drive education policy - are for them.

A long-awaited review of student funding is expected to clear the path for the prime minister to change government policy on the issue, perhaps after the next election.

Asked if he stood by his manifesto pledge ruling out top-up fees, Mr Blair could only say: "We stand by our manifesto."

When the Tory leader asked him how this squared with new Education Secretary Charles Clarke's weekend pronouncement that they could not be ruled out, the prime minister's lack of a satisfactory answer was all too apparent.

The display of government wriggle and fudge on the issue was completed when Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy - Mr Blair must have been wondered if he was facing a classic pincer movement - weighed in.

Mr Kennedy wanted to know if the prime minister would pledge to stand by the no top-up fees promise for as long as he was in Number Ten.

Mr Blair, tellingly, declined to do so.


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