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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 September, 2004, 12:15 GMT 13:15 UK
Prime minister's questions
Sketch
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online Political Correspondent

When question time fails to ignite, there is always the alternative sport of frontbencher watching to keep us amused.

Not setting the world alight
So, thankfully, the first Blair-Howard clash of the new season happened to coincide with a reshuffle.

While the two leaders comprehensively failed to set the world alight with their exchanges, there was much more fun to be had looking at the faces of those sitting alongside Tony Blair for signs of delight, despair or any other internal emotional turmoil.

Having John Prescott sitting between the prime minister and Chancellor Gordon Brown was a good place to start and a bit of a gift.

If all the gossip about the battle between the two men over the reshuffle is right - and it almost certainly is - they need to be kept well apart for fear they will start lashing out at each other with their handbags.

Hand clasping

And who better for the job than Mr Prescott, whose ample frame ensured they couldn't get within bargepoles distance of each other, let alone swinging distance.

Prescott kept the rivals apart
In any case Mr Brown was giving nothing away. He always spends question time in a little world of his own, staring at the walls, smiling at some private joke, clasping his hands and, very occasionally, leaning across to hand the prime minister a killer fact with which to floor his opponent.

There was lots of wall staring, smiling and hand clasping today, but nothing to indicate his emotional state.

So, moving on to the next one and we got to Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

He is said to be the latest entry in the prime minister little black book of people to "get" because, apparently, he has started cosying up to Mr Brown.

He didn't look worried.

Cut off

There was slightly more promising territory in the shape of treasury minister and Brown ally Paul Boateng who has been fingered by some for the chop.

He looked positively downcast. Was this a sign that he has been relieved of his responsibilities. Another glittering career cut off in its prime?

Or was he simply as bored by the entire occasion as the rest of us?

As for the Tory benches, they cheered their man as he tried to spear the prime minister over his style of government but there appeared to be little genuine enthusiasm or excitement.

And the Liberal Democrats visibly winced when the prime minister blew what appeared to be a gigantic hole in Charles Kennedy's spending plans.

It was mildly more diverting than the real event. But not much.




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