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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 November, 2003, 13:23 GMT
Verdict on Howard's PMQs debut

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Well you would have expected him to have first night nerves.

His first question time performance since the removal of Iain Duncan Smith as Tory leader was always going to be a tough, nerve wracking experience.

And with all eyes pinned on him, it was also likely to set the seal on his image as party leader.

So it is absolutely understandable that there was a hesitation, even a tremble in his voice after the first, bruising, electrifying clash.

Yes.... Tony Blair clearly did not like being fallen on by Michael Howard and a rumbustuous, noisily united and baying Tory party.

Unexpecting virgin

The prime minister was expecting a new level of assault from the opposition leader - and the crowd was expecting some injury to be done.

And neither were disappointed.

Mr Howard sat there, arms folded over his chest in classic Bela Lugosi style, figuratively sharpening his teeth before leaping out of his seat to sink them into the PM.

Mr Blair was rocked back by the ferocity of the attack, like the unexpecting innocent overwhelmed by the man in the cape.

Blair had a tremor in his voice
Not, it has to be said, for too long. He recovered pretty quickly after Mr Howard's first flypast, but he now knows the level at which he will have to pitch his game from here on in.

No more of the easy batting away of the opposition leader's questions with a dismissive wave of his hand.

And probably no more of his fallback position when under pressure, which goes along the lines of: "If you think we are bad how much worse were they."

Reminding us of the last Tory government's record was one of his stock answers to Mr Duncan Smith's attacks. And IDS always let him get away with it.

Different league

Not Michael Howard. He came prepared with a thick document of Mr Blair's past pronouncements - on everything from pulling out of the EU to supporting strikers.

That, he hopes, will stop that little game of Blair's in its tracks.

He even showed he was capable of doing what IDS never managed in all his two years - thinking on his feet.

He planned only to ask three questions in his first attack.

But when he decided he needed the fourth to answer the prime minister's accusations about the last Tory governments - now nearly a seven year old memory - he kept on going.

That should continue to unnerve the prime minister.

So, yes, Mr Howard was in a different league to Iain Duncan Smith, he even out-did William Hague.

If this is the shape of things to come, question time will be much more fun and a much more important occasion for both the party leaders and British politics.

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