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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 March, 2004, 13:07 GMT
Prime Ministers Questions
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

It was a near foregone conclusion that Michael Howard would use question time to plunge further into the scandal over the waiving of checks on immigrants from eastern Europe.

Howard seized on immigration scandal
It was, to coin a phrase, a no-brainer as it presses all sorts of buttons for the opposition.

It suggests there is a conspiracy to fiddle immigration figures and, therefore, re-ignites the entire debate over the wider issue of migrants who are said to be just waiting to race into the UK.

It once again suggests the government prefers to discipline whistleblowers than the real culprits - an echo of the Jo "bury the bad news" Moore affair which also saw whistleblower Martin Sixsmith sacked.

And it allows attacks on ministers, and even the prime minister, for refusing to take responsibility for their own departments and officials - or confessing they have no control over them.

So, pretty much a win-win prospect for Michael Howard, and he pushed his advantage as far as he reasonably could.

There is no doubt that the prime minister has been embarrassed, possibly even infuriated, by this affair.

Cross hairs

And many in Westminster on all sides are dismayed that the current rules of political etiquette no longer include the notion that ministers should resign as a matter of principle for mess-ups in their own departments. It was not always so.

So there was plenty of mileage in all this for Mr Howard.

He aimed over the head of the minister directly responsible for the department concerned, Beverley Hughes, and focused his cross hairs instead on the man responsible for the entire civil service - Tony Blair of course.

And the ensuing clash was pretty much as expected.

Mr Howard demanded the prime minister took responsibility for once.

And the prime minister said he did, sort of, but then went on to predict that a civil servant would probably end up nailed to Westminster bridge for the offence of taking things into his own hands.

As for the suspension of the whistleblower, that was nothing to do with the prime minister but entirely up to the civil service.

A pretty easy victory for the leader of the opposition.

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