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EDITIONS
 Wednesday, 22 January, 2003, 12:48 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.

"The lunatics have taken over the asylum policy" - Iain Duncan Smith accuses the government of being incapable of deporting asylum seekers who pose a threat to the UK
The MP who shouted "Are you buying?" across the chamber to Tory MP Archie Norman.

There are reports that former Asda chairman Mr Norman is advising a US venture capital firm planning one of the six bids for supermarket chain Safeway.

MPs are remarkably adept at self-promotion but Peter Lilley went a step further by listing legislation on asylum he had introduced in government.

No lights under bushels there, then.

But there was merit to his point that the government had been forced to reinstate - five years after they scrapped them - his laws stopping benefits for those who do not immediately claim asylum upon entering the UK.

Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith accused the prime minister of having to "cobble together" a policy on higher education funding after cabinet rows.

He later put to the prime minister that the asylum and immigration system was a "shambles".

Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy asked the prime minister again under what circumstances the UK would not support unilateral US military action against Iraq.

Other subjects includedAn invite from France to Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe; War crime charges against Iraqi leader; Vaccine uptakes by British troops; Disability discrimination; the effectiveness of UN inspectors in Iraq; Radioactive material on passenger ferries; Hospices; Criminal Record Bureau; Gun crime.

It may still be too early to say for sure, but there seems to be a subtle change in the nature of question time since it was moved to lunchtime.

Iain Duncan Smith and Tony Blair traded their usual, pretty predictable blows, and backbenchers threw in their two bob's worth.

But it all seemed just a bit more lacklustre than usual.

There was the occasional outbreak of name calling and jeering but, somehow, their hearts didn't seem to be in it.

Now, this was all predicted beforehand.

It was said that the sessions would lose much of their lunch-induced boisterousness and that MPs would gradually lose interest.

So it could be that the perceived changes are imaginary. But I don't think so.

There appeared to be fewer MPs on the benches and, those who were there, seemed to have only half their attention on the proceedings.

Of course, the lack of some of the more excitable behaviour will probably be seen as a bonus by many voters looking for some mature debate.

But it could also be the start of a gradual winding down of the importance of the session.

Then again, maybe it was just a bad day. We shall see.


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