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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 June, 2004, 12:14 GMT 13:14 UK
Prime minister's questions
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online Political Correspondent

Well this, apparently, is what we want.

leaders were in election mode
The two party leaders cross examining each other over the details of their general election manifestos.

It is certainly what Tony Blair says he wants virtually every time he gets up in question time and uses it to quiz the opposition leader about his policies.

But to be fair, it is also what the public regularly says it wants - less of the yah boo, playground nonsense and more proper debate about policy.

And just for once it is pretty much what was on offer in the first question time since the local and European elections.

The election results - which gave neither of the two leaders very much room to gloat over the other's misfortunes - did sneak onto the agenda.

Say no

First when Labour's splendid Wolverhampton MP Dennis Turner declared: "Have I got good news for the prime minister" - and went on to give him just that in reference to the election result in his patch.

The prime minister was understandably reluctant to go too far down that path - he did, after all, comprehensively lose the local elections.

Secondly, though, when Michael Howard touched on the surge in support for the Eurosceptic UKIP to demand the prime minister vetoes the EU constitution when he goes to Brussels on Thursday.

"If I was in his place," he daringly, if not foolhardily, suggested, "I would say no."

"Quite", the prime minister almost said.

Big issues

Liberal Democrat Charles Kennedy may have prompted the usual groans from all sides, but he touched on an issue which is becoming increasingly sensitive - the threat to the environment from pollution caused by air travel.

This is good, traditional Lib Dem territory but warranted a near-dismissive response from the prime minister that he was not about to interfere in people's travel plans - or, presumably, gratuitously alienate the airlines.

But then it was onto the domestic agenda - precisely where the prime minister wants the debate to be. No Iraq, no local election humiliation and no leadership questions.

And here the two men took chunks out of each other in pretty equal measure over the health service and in whose hands it would be safest.

As they both appear to be offering patients "choice" it actually represented the beginnings of a proper debate about what they really mean by that and where they differ from each other.

Nothing was properly resolved and neither scored an obvious victory.

The prime minister probably scored the best hit when he declared, if Mr Howard had come back into front line politics because he was angry about the state of the NHS - as the opposition leader has claimed - "he must have been incandescent when he was in government."

But they are certain to return to this issue which both have identified as bound to be one of the big issues in the general election which, on the prime minister's current showing, should still be in a year's time and under his premiership.

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