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EDITIONS
Wednesday, 4 December, 2002, 15:44 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.

With the collapse of a second royal butler trial, Dennis Skinner seized on a question about prison overcrowding with his own suggestion of how Mr Blair should have replied.

"Why didn't he say we are doing our best to keep the prison population down. We have kept two butlers our of jail," he said, asking what was going wrong with the justice system over the abandoned trials.

"At a Guardian breakfast - no doubt over muesli," Iain Duncan Smith referring to the setting for comments made by Chancellor Gordon Brown opposing the idea of tuition fees.

Literally, this week as Tam Dalyell said world football's governing body FIFA had found no evidence that the Iraqi football team had been caned on their feet after failing to qualify for the World Cup.

Despite this the alleged incident was included in the UK government's dossier of human rights abuses in Iraq, published this week.

Peter Luff, Tory MP, raised the question of treatment for prisoners with drug addictions. It was a worthwhile intervention above the usual political hurly-burly.

Tony Blair for his misfired joke after being asked about his tuition fee free days at university.

"The problem with my university education (at Oxford) was that it was often tuition free," the prime minister said. The faces of cabinet colleagues Margaret Beckett, Andrew Smith and John Prescott were a picture.

Amid reports of new divisions between the prime minister and his chancellor, Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith asked if Mr Blair agreed with Gordon Brown's reported comments that the idea of university top-up fees is "ridiculous".

Mr Blair fended off the suggestion he was at loggerheads with his neighbour in Downing Street. Ministers would produce their plans for university funding next month, he said, but the "status quo is not an option".

For the second prong of his attack, Mr Duncan Smith accused ministers of creating "gridlock Britain" where the M25 was a virtual car park - Mr Blair countered that more money was now going into improving the UK's roads.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy too focused his Commons interrogation on top-up fees, a hot political potato as students staged a mass protest against the idea.

Mr Kennedy pressed the prime minister to rule out those fees - but Mr Blair refused to pre-empt the conclusions of the government's funding review.

Other topics raised included: Fears that a European directive on agency staff could cost 250,000 UK jobs; the school bus crash which this week killed a 12-year-old in South Wales; calls for a settlement "fair to all" in the firefighters' dispute; concern about the size of the prison population; plans to raise the tax on rubbish put into landfill sites; the shake-up of the criminal justice system.

It's strange what has happened to Dennis Skinner.

There was a time when his left wing assaults on party leaders either frightened the life out of them or infuriated them. More often than not it was both.

But the Beast of Bolsover, like other mythical creatures, no longer scares the children.

In fact, when he leapt to his feet during question time to tackle Tony Blair about the firefighters, the prime minister frankly treated him as a bit of a comic turn.

"I had a bad feeling you were going to call him. Mr Speaker," he said, feigning nervousness before going on to brush aside yet another question.

The beast seemed to lose his teeth when Labour won the 1997 election.

Does he feel he had at least got his own party in power and shouldn't be seen to be too disloyal. Or is he simply resigned to the fact that his side lost.

Either way, the rebels come from elsewhere nowadays. And there was plenty of backbench criticism aimed at the prime minister.

Bob Marshall Andrews on the alleged assault on civil liberties by the criminal justice bill, Tam Dalyell on government anti-Iraqi propaganda and Peter Kilfoyle on Saddam Hussein's non-support of al-Qaeda.

They all had a go but not one left a mark on this supremely confident prime minister. Oh, and Iain Duncan Smith was quite good too.


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