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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 June, 2004, 12:29 GMT 13:29 UK
Prime minister's questions
Sketch
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online Political Correspondent

There was never much chance that Charles Kennedy would watch Blair and Howard kicking chunks out of each other without wanting to weigh into the brawl himself.

Kennedy joins NHS row
And, sure enough, once the other two had been separated long enough to let him in, he rolled up his sleeves and started swinging.

Wasn't all this posturing over which party would offer voters the most choice when it came to health provision a bit of a waste of breath, he suggested.

What people wanted above everything else was a quality service available locally.

That may be a simple message, but it may well prove an attractive one to voters confused about the details of the other two parties' proposals.

Talk about allowing them to travel to any hospital in the land for treatment (Tory proposal) or choose between a group of local hospitals (Labour proposal) was, well, just talk unless "impractical levels of resources" were poured into the service, insisted Mr Kennedy.

Not trusted

Now this argument doesn't suit either of the two big parties, although there is some anecdotal evidence at least to suggest that is precisely what voters want.

Michael Howard
Howard taking risk on health
At least, at the end of this question time, it was clear what the three party manifestos were going to offer come the general election.

And the prime minister claims he is "delighted" that the Tories have chosen to fight that election on the NHS.

He may have a point. Historically the NHS has been a Labour issue - opinion polls suggest not enough people trust the Tories to run it.

Tony Blair is confident that, if he keeps on reminding voters of the past Tory record - as he did again and again during question time - those old concerns will return.

There is an element of gambling in this for the prime minister who has still not reaped any apparent electoral benefit from all the cash he has poured into the public services.

He is banking on the voters not deciding they can no longer trust either of the two big parties to run the NHS.

Mr Howard's gamble, in hoping he can persuaded voters to trust him more than Labour, is probably the greater one.

And maybe Mr Kennedy can make some election hay with all that.




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