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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 December, 2003, 13:45 GMT
Prime Ministers Questions

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Apparently "you cough up zip til you are blinging."

A blinging clash
If you haven't the faintest idea what that radio advertisement means then you should probably check because, according to Michael Howard, you are paying for it.

The rough translation is that students will pay nothing when they go to University and only start repaying their top up fees when they are earning over a certain level.

But I suppose if you are under 30, you probably already knew that. Groovy.

The phrase is being used to promote Tony Blair's pet plans for student finance which have sparked the biggest backbench rebellion of his leadership - since the last one.

The only trouble is, it has not been agreed. It is not a policy it is only a proposal.

And Mr Howard believes that is iniquitous.

Best plans

And he asked the prime minister six times if he agreed that the ad was in breach of the government's own rules stating taxpayers' money should never be used to promote a policy before it has been agreed.

In other words, taxpayers should not have to pay for propaganda.

Six times, the prime minister refused to be drawn, insisting the real debate was not about "some ad", but about whose plans for student finance were the best.

Well, if it was such a silly question, he should have been glad the opposition leader was concentrating on it rather than something more substantial.

But he did not look pleased. In fact he looked decidedly cross. And he clearly did not want to answer.

Own way

So we were back to turning prime minister's question time into leader of the opposition's question time as Mr Blair attacked the Tory policy on university funding.

He followed the same approach when tearing into the Liberal Democrats' spending proposals.

Even Speaker Michael Martin was forced to admit that the prime minister was answering questions "in his own way."

Indeed he was. Whether he was right to suggest no one was interested in how he was spending their money is another matter.

It was a classic Howard ambush and the fact that it came just before the Chancellor stood up to talk about taxes and spending was no coincidence.

Now there is a man who is blinging. I think.




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