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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 April, 2004, 12:10 GMT 13:10 UK
Prime minister's questions
Sketch
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online Political Correspondent

Michael Howard has a new question time tactic.

Howard has a new approach
The Tory leader has determined to engage in what Downing Street routinely describes as "processology", and uses as a reason not to answer questions.

The processes by which governments reach their decisions are, apparently, off limits.

Well not to Mr Howard. He believes a bit of processology would reveal that, to use his own words, the government is in a shambles.

Tony Blair is making it up as he goes along, and not bothering to tell his ministers what he is up to.

Day before

As evidence, Mr Howard demanded to know precisely when the prime minister decided to make his keynote speech on immigration.

A good question, bearing in mind the first anyone knew about it - and that includes Labour MPs - was only the day before.

Mr Howard knew that because he had a copy of a diary of speeches for the week circulated to Labour MPs by Downing Street and there was no mention of it.

"It was arranged very hastily at the last minute because he was in a panic over newspaper headlines," he said.

Next, and far more embarrassing for the prime minister, Mr Howard asked why he had opened his last cabinet meeting with an apology.

It was, he said, because Mr Blair had executed his greatest ever U turn, and had not bothered to take his cabinet into his confidence.

Admit it

There was no getting away from this one for Tony Blair.

He had indeed apologised, and he had to admit it.

Blair admitted an apology
But, he suggested, people were far more interested in the actual policies of the government rather than the way they are reached.

He did not say they were not interested in processology - probably because that is almost certainly not the case - but he might as well have.

His official spokesman no doubt would, if asked the same questions in the daily press briefings.

Mr Howard - in common, it has to be said, with many political journalists - is actually very interested in the processes of decision making.

Or, in Mr Howard's words: "People are interested to know whether the prime minister is thinking more than one day ahead on anything."

The prime minister attempted to get back onto his front foot by tearing into Mr Howard's previous record in government on everything from Europe, through crime, to immigration.

It was only partly successful. But Tony Blair knows he is going to take a short term battering over these two issues - and most certainly his EU referendum turnaround.

He believes he can survive that and that, in the long run, the decisions will play to his electoral advantage.

The short term should continue to be fun though.




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