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EDITIONS
Wednesday, 18 December, 2002, 16:00 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.

"When the prime minister makes promises on schools, pensions.... He's not juggling balls, he's talking them."

Iain Duncan Smith, with a nod to Cherie Blair's statement last week, highlighting a series of "broken Labour promises".

This was the last time that prime minister's questions will start at 3pm - it will be interesting to see whether the same well-lubricated rowdy atmosphere is present in the New Year at the new noon start time.

Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy concentrated his fire on a possible war with Iraq.

Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith tackled the prime minister on Iraq, road congestion and occupational pensions, before going on to attack the government's record on schools, hospitals, asylum, crime and transport policy.

Other subjects covered were: British companies named in UN resolution in Iraq, vaccination policy, crime, anti-social behaviour, rail services, pensioners' bus passes, business insurance, suicide bombings, local government finance, fishing stocks, reasons for war in Iraq, haemophilia, the threat posed by al-Qaeda, access to higher education and housing in Burnley.

With Dallas actor Larry Hagman sitting in the gallery soaking up the soap from the last question time of 2002 it was hard not to picture Tony Blair in a cowboy hat doing his JR Ewing impersonation.

He swaggered over his government's record and he played the tough guy over Iraq and Saddam Hussein.

And, when he had once again slapped Iain Duncan Smith around a bit, he sat down at the end of his scene with a decidedly JR-style smirk on his face.

Mr Duncan Smith, as it happened, gave his own impression.

Unfortunately, and despite a pretty effective series of questions, he still only managed to come across as the Cliff Barnes of this show - always desperate to do JR, but never quite matching his opponent's deviousness.

Cliff, with a nod towards Cherie Blair, or the lip-twitching Sue Ellen for the purposes of this piece, accused Tony of talking "balls".

Not the sort of language you would expect in the chamber - the Texas atmosphere must have gone to his head.

It's all a bit unfair really. Cliff had JR on the rack on a number of counts of underhand dealing, broken contracts and money grabs.

But no matter how hard he tried, slippery old JR simply outmanouevred him. Usually with a huge amount of bluster and implied threats of the damage he would do to him next time he got him to the ballot box - assuming he could ever get that far.

In a twist to the television drama's plotline from the 1980s, the audience here are not wondering who shot JR.

Instead the cliffhanger question involves Cliff - but it is not a matter of who shoots him, just a question of when.

And if you have not the faintest idea what I'm talking about then you are too young.


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