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EDITIONS
 Wednesday, 8 January, 2003, 12:42 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.

"Isn't the prime minister's real policy on law and order a combination of gimmicks and hot air." Iain Duncan Smith after listing initiatives he described as "meaningless drivel".
James Gray, Tory MP, who called on the government to take a lead over whether England's cricketers should play in Zimbabwe. Statesmen, not cricketers, should make such decisions, he said.
It may have been an earlier starting time, but one tradition - of asking a tame question designed to puff Labour policy - lived on with Patrick Hall's 'question' about improvements to life in Bedford.

Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith asked if the prime minister agreed with Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's view that the chances of war were 60/40 against.

For his second batch of questions he tackled the prime minister over his policies on crime and criminal justice.

Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy asked whether the UK would support the US in military action against Iraq even if there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction discovered by United Nations inspectors.

Other topics covered included: Whether the England cricket team should take part in world cup matches in Zimbabwe; the need for international action to tackle drug trafficking; the shootings in Birmingham; whether money going into the NHS is being wasted; action to prevent flooding; Bedford Hospital.

It's probably as well that Jack Straw was on important business in Singapore and Geoff Hoon was in Turkey for the day.

The sight of senior cabinet ministers squabbling in public over the prospects of sending British troops to war is not a sight most people want to view.

And after their public clash over the chances of action against Iraq, it was a fair bet that Iain Duncan Smith would seize on the clear split between the two. And that's precisely what he did - to great effect.

Did the prime minister agree with Mr Straw's assessment that war was now 60-40 against or did he agree with his defence secretary who had, in effect, told Mr Straw to keep quiet?

It was obviously a trick question with no right answer, but no matter how many miles away Mr Straw may have been, he must have felt the chill from his boss' reply which made the snowstorm gripping Westminster feel like Spring sunshine.

After twice refusing to back Mr Straw's odds he coldly added: "I have just said what I believe to be the position."

But Mr Duncan Smith wasn't done.

He used his second approach to the table to pot another series of game-winning balls - this time over Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine's policy of not jailing first time burglars.

And another minister felt the chill winter wind of the prime minister's "support".

Mr Blair may have got up earlier to attend the new noontime session, but Mr Duncan Smith had clearly been up even earlier.

If the Tory leader's New Year resolution was to start kicking Tony Blair harder during the new, earlier Question Time, he got off to a very good start.

What effect the change of timing will have on the impact this weekly session has outside the Westminster village still remains to be seen.


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