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EDITIONS
Wednesday, 20 November, 2002, 15:55 GMT
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.

"There is no point in shouting at the leader of the opposition" - Speaker Michael Martin comes to the defence of Iain Duncan Smith

Labour MP Tony McWalter: "When you exercise your considerable powers of appointments, powers which many believe are quasi-medieval in their extent and in the manner in which you are requested to exercise those powers - what emphasis do you give, or what weight do you attach, in making those appointments to a demonstrative capacity for displaying independence of mind?"

Tony Blair: "I have precisely the same attachment to independence of mind as any of my predecessors as prime minister."

Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith kicked off by asking the prime minister if he was concerned that over a third of ambulance trusts were not well prepared for chemical, biological or radioactive incidents.

He also pressed for a dedicated Cabinet minister to deal with terror attacks and asked if the prime minister would use emergency powers to ensure public safety during the fire strikes.

Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy asked how the prime minister will weigh up the US demand for British troops to join military action in Iraq with the chief of the defence staff's concern about the present military effectiveness of our armed forces.

Other topics covered included: The firefighters' dispute; equal opportunity in police support staff recruitment in Northern Ireland and the Good Friday agreement; cuts in the fishing industry; domestic violence; mental health; the national policing plan; funding universities; war on Iraq; prime minister's appointments and hospital bed shortages in Norfolk.

Labour MP Tony Wright: "Now that we have universities offering degree courses in aromatherapy, rugby studies and golf course management, for which, I understand, the entry requirement is a handicap of no more than 4.4 - at the same time the country has a desperate need for skilled trades people, doesn't it suggest that we need a proper review of what we want our higher education system to be, and also how are we going to pay for it?"

Tony Blair's response was that a review of higher education funding was needed, adding: "The status quo is not an option."

Geoff Hoon: Sitting on the front bench, the defence secretary's earlier press briefing set all sorts of unwanted traps for the prime minister. Perhaps that's why he was biting his fingernails pensively.
It is always a mistake to think senior military men are not politicians.

Indeed, you don't get to be the Chief of Defence Staff without being a politician - and an armed one at that.

So the comments by Sir Michael Boyce that he was "extremely concerned" that preparations for a long firefighters' strike were impacting on military effectiveness and that there was no way he was sending his men over picket lines should not have surprised the government.

He was doing what good commanders should always do - protecting his troops' backs.

But his comments clearly took ministers by surprise and opposition leaders lost no time in seizing on them during question time.

Both Iain Duncan Smith, who took all his allotted six questions on the issue, and Charles Kennedy, attempted to embarrass the prime minister over the clear difference between Sir Michael and the government.

And Tony Blair attempted to close the gap by ignoring Sir Michael's most pointed comments and simply repeating a selective comment that the military, as always, would meet any demands place on it.

Mr Duncan Smith was unfocused and missed the bullseye. Mr Kennedy got closer. But, this time, the winner was without doubt Sir Michael.

On past government performance we can probably now expect there to be pressure on the CDS to issue a statement "clarifying" his position.

My betting is he is battle hardened enough to resist.


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