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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 January, 2004, 12:47 GMT
Prime Ministers Questions

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Michael Howard has clearly learned a trick or two from arch inquisitor Jeremy Paxman who once famously asked him the same question 14 times.

A taste of things to come
Because, over the past two Question Time sessions, the Tory leader has asked the prime minister the same question a dozen times.

And, just like Paxman, Mr Howard has failed to get an answer.

He demanded of Tony Blair: "On 22 July he was asked 'why did you authorise the naming of David Kelly?'. And he replied 'That is completely untrue'.

"Does the prime minister stand by that reply," asked Mr Howard. "Yes or no."

Yes or no

Last week, the prime minister told him to look at "the totality" of what he had said.

This week it was "I stand by all I have said on this issue."

Then, in what appeared like a sudden outburst of confidence, he said Mr Howard had just accused him of lying and hoped he would apologise if the Hutton report into Dr Kelly's death did not find that accusation proven.

In any case, he predicted, whatever Lord Hutton found, it was clear Mr Howard would still demand his resignation.

That looks very likely, it must be said.

And what question time has been about for the past two weeks is both sides getting their moves in first.

Demanding resignation

The opposition leader has been marking out his territory, while successfully rattling the prime minister at the same time.

Tony Blair has been putting it on record that he expects the opposition to demand his resignation come what may, thereby hoping to discount such a demand if and when it does come.

But, as far as Mr Howard is concerned, he emerged from this session having succeeded in his objective.

The prime minister was clearly unnerved and unable or unwilling to answer the question. And that comes across extremely badly on TV and radio, whatever the justification may be.

And, for the first time it looked as if the prime minister really could not wait for Lord Hutton to report so he could finally put all this behind him.

It is, however an absolutely safe bet that Lord Hutton's report will only be the start of it.

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