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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 February, 2004, 13:09 GMT
Prime Ministers Questions
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

MPs just love it when question time gets personal and abusive.

Personal wrangling was overshadowed by Ireland
Forget all the protestations that they want serious, rational debate during these 30 minute clashes. What they really want is blood and guts and a clear victory.

That is why you could currently sell tickets for prime minister's question time - an event which had slipped dramatically down the ratings while Iain Duncan Smith was Tory leader.

Michael Howard, needless to say, is a very different matter.

His aggressive style first appeared to throw the prime minister onto the back foot, but Tony Blair has recently started giving as good as he gets.

Mud bath

This time around the grapple with the leader of the opposition soon turned to eye gouging and hair pulling over government plans for drug testing in schools.

Mr Howard clearly hit the bulls-eye by revealing the prime minister had "blundered into" the issue at the weekend and announced he would be sending out guidance to teachers next week.

Blair faces a new challenge in Ireland
Didn't he know the advice had actually been sent out last week, taunted Mr Howard.

Well, despite his best efforts to deny it, no he didn't. But then, Mr Howard supports the policy anyway.

"Incompetent" shouted Mr Howard. "Opportunist" replied the prime minister.

And they then dived into the mud bath and continued to call each other names. Probably a score draw.

Warning bells

Liberal Democrat Charles Kennedy then surprised the chamber by getting an admission from the prime minister that he is negotiating with Tanzania to take Somali asylum seekers.

Did not this risk staring "an international trade in displaced people", he asked.

This is a hugely sensitive issue and despite the prime minister's attempt to suggest it was an entirely sensible policy, and to brand Mr Kenney as "absurd", will set off warning bells amongst human rights groups and with many MPs.

Then, just moments later - after a bizarre question from Anthony Steen which had something to do with a Buddhist retreat in Torbay, the council tax and it all being the Liberal Democrats' fault - reality crashed into the chamber in the shape of Northern Ireland.

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble dropped a bombshell by threatening to torpedo the entire peace process unless the government moved to address the latest apparent outbreak of IRA violence in the province.

Suddenly, the issue of Northern Ireland was back at the top of the prime minister's agenda and, from his remarks in the chamber, it appears he is ready to once again step into the process.

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