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EDITIONS
Wednesday, 11 December, 2002, 15:42 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.

"That is the most extraordinarily complacent answer after 10 days of half truths and evasions" - Iain Duncan Smith attacks Tony Blair's answer over the "Cheriegate" saga.

"It's absolutely typical of him that he dives into the swimming pool just as the water is running out" - Tony Blair hits back at Mr Duncan Smith

SNP MP Alex Salmond was one of a number of MPs who spoke up for the fishing industry around the country.

Amid widespread fears over the potential effect of restrictions aimed at protecting fish stocks, Mr Salmond's contribution was the most eloquent.

The government keeps telling us that the most important issue of the day is Iraq - so full marks to Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy for quizzing the prime minister on the matter.

All those MPs who thought it was time for panto in the Commons with a series of theatrical roars every time the prime minister trotted out another health statistic.

And then hissed at the mention of a newspaper editor.

Iain Duncan Smith kicked off the exchanges by referring to Cherie Blair's involvement with convicted fraudster Peter Foster and the use of the Downing Street media machine during the controversy.

"Are you concerned about the loss of integrity that surrounds the Number 10 press office and information provided by government and how do you intend to restore it?" he asked.

Mr Duncan Smith's second prong of attack was on the closure of occupational pension funds which he said was down to the government's 25bn pension tax.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy questioned whether Mr Blair shared the UN secretary general's "criticism" of the style and approach of the American administration's handling of the Iraqi dossier.

Mr Kennedy said it was important to confirm the perception that the UN is the sovereign authority.

Other topics raised included: NHS patients, the national census, autism, council tax rises, asking Germany to withdraw from monetary union, blind trusts, an attack on the Daily Mail, GDP, crisis in the fishing industry, Yemen bound ship carrying Scud missiles, PFI projects, drugs seizures and Zimbabwe.

Well he had to have a go at "Cheriegate", but Iain Duncan Smith probably knew he would get nowhere.

The prime minister and the Downing Street machine have decided to close down this particular story before it does them any more damage.

As far as they are concerned, and despite what others might think, this horse is dead and heading for the glue factory.

That didn't stop the Tory leader gamely trying to flog it back into life - but he probably knew he would get nowhere.

In an unusually raucous question time clash, Mr Duncan Smith was careful not to mention the prime minister's wife at all.

Instead he attempted to concentrate on the bigger questions over the handling of Peter Foster's deportation proceedings and the administration of blind trusts.

But answer came there none. There was plenty of jeering from the Labour benches and there was real anger from Tory MPs who had to watch their man being dismissed as if he was a particularly nasty peeping Tom.

And in a carefully prepared put down, the prime minister claimed he was "diving into the swimming pool just as the water is running out".

True, Mr Blair has pulled the plug out of this swimming pool. Whether or not it is his plug to pull is a matter for debate.


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