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 Wednesday, 15 January, 2003, 16:22 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.

Once again we see the courage and commitment of police officers to the service of this country - Tony Blair

We owe them an enormous debt of gratitude - Iain Duncan Smith

It was not a day for jokes, with MPs in sombre mood following the death of Pc Stephen Oake during an anti-terror raid in Manchester, and with war against Iraq looming.

Paul Boateng and Alan Milburn giggling on the front bench as Tony Blair explained his position on Iraq. It didn't look good.
Dennis Skinner took the plunge to ask what many anti-war campaigners and Labour MPs privately believe - that oil is part of the motivation behind the crisis.

It didn't get him anywhere, but was the sort of troublesome intervention he built his beast of Bolsover reputation on.

Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith tackled the prime minister on the UK's asylum system and called for the country's borders to be secured.

He later highlighted apparent splits on war with Iraq within the cabinet - calling on the prime minister to make sure there was a single clear message being put by his cabinet.

Lib Dem Alan Beith was standing in for Charles Kennedy, and again focused on Iraq, asking if there were any circumstances in which the UK would not back US unilateral action against Iraq.

Other MPs also concentrated heavily on Iraq, with other subjects raised including sex offenders being allowed to leave the country for eight days at a time without restriction; hospital waiting lists; flooding.

As opposition hardens against Tony Blair's stand on war with Iraq, so his passion for action appears to increase.

And by the end of a question time which saw him facing critics from every side of the House, he delivered one of his most emotional defences yet of his policy.

His eruption was clearly genuine and displayed both his personal belief that he is doing the right thing and his dismay at the line being taken by his detractors.

He denied - completely unconvincingly - that there were cabinet splits over the issue.

And he repeated his conviction that the UN would ultimately back military action against Saddam if he refuses to disarm.

His own backbenchers, led by veteran rebel Dennis Skinner, repeated their view that he would be facing a serious backlash if he followed President Bush into war with Iraq without specific UN backing.

But the prime minister was having none of it.

Inevitably, in the wake of the murder of a police officer, question time was a more sombre than usual affair.

And that may have taken the edge of some of the criticisms.

Also inevitably, however, Iain Duncan Smith seized on the different messages coming from cabinet ministers over the policy on Saddam.

Specifically, he used Clare Short's insistence that there should be further UN backing to claim the government was not united on the issue.

This is not a good line from a leader whose party is as disunited as at almost any time in its recent history.

And Labour MPs barracked him remorselessly as a result.

But few in the chamber believed the prime minister when he attempted to claim his party was united on this issue.

It is a split Mr Duncan Smith will continue to exploit.

Do you agree with Nick?

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Disclaimer: The BBC will put up as many of your comments as possible but we cannot guarantee that all e-mails will be published. The BBC reserves the right to edit comments that are published.

Here's what you made of Nick's analysis of prime minister's questions:

Tony Blair was clearly rattled at Elfyn Llwyd's simple but cutting question on whether it was right to send servicemen and women into battle in Iraq without the support of international law.

This question clearly seemed to wrongfoot Mr. Blair because it drew attention to the reality of young people being sent into war.
David Craik, UK

As a lifelong Conservative supporter, I have to admit my admiration for Mr Blair's defence of his Iraq policy...

We must believe him, we must back him and ultimately we must support him and our armed forces in any War. This unity must include Mr Blair's cabinet!
Keith Power, Poland

There was a huge contrast between the passion with which Tony Blair spoke and in a statesmanlike way delivered the harsh reality of his position on Iraq to the somewhat school debating society performance by Ian Duncan Smith.

Another contrast was the good performance by the Lib Dems in asking challenging questions compared to the Conservatives who apart from Anne Widdecombe seemed almost mute.
Philip, UK

If we can have nuclear weapons then what difference does it make if Saddam has them?

I don't believe he is the crack pot he is made out to be!

Why are we not more concerned about North Korea? Surely this is much more important. Oil is the real issue here.
Dave, Kent UK

I'm not anti-American, however I am anti Bush and his administration. I still cannot see what threat Iraq posses to the UK or America.

Let's face it America and the UK sold most of the arms to Saddam. The easiest way to find what weapons Sadam has is for the UK and America to say: 'We've sold you this and by the way have you purchased anything new recently'.
Dave Singh, England

I think it is unfair to give a "yellow card" to Paul Boateng and his friend for laughing. If I had to avoid laughter every day that America decides to remove a regime (not permitted by resolution 1441) just to get more money, oil and votes; then I think I will have a very unhappy life.
Colin Asquith, Scotland

What this summary fails to mention is the appalling linkage by the Conservatives of terrorism with asylum.

Fifteen people have so far been arrested regarding the ricin affair, but Ann Widdecombe called this a "direct link" between asylum seekers and terror. When will the Tories learn that this right-wing reactionary attitude has no place in 21st century Britain?
Rob Newman, England

Arguing over whether or not the Cabinet is fully behind Blair will get Iain Duncan Smith nowhere; he would do better to put forward his own ideas on how Britain should be tackling Saddam.

His questions therefore should have been about Britain's capability to go to war, not which ministers think what.
James Lockwood, England


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