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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 June, 2004, 11:56 GMT 12:56 UK
Prime minister's questions
Sketch
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online Political Correspondent

It took Speaker Michael Martin virtually until half time to decide the Opposition leader was "pushing his luck".

Back on general election footing
By then, many of those watching prime minister's question time were probably wondering when anyone else would get a look in.

And, while the opposition leader took the brunt of the Speaker's irritation, the prime minister was just as culpable.

This was far less Prime Ministers' Questions and, following a similar set-to last week, much more general election questions part two.

As the Speaker told Mr Howard when one of his questions started to warp the time-space continuum : "I give some elbow room to the leader of the opposition, but he is clearly pushing his luck - I think we will leave it at that."

Except, of course, they will not leave it at that.

Solid debate

The prime minister himself promised that - as he so relished these cross party debates on health, education and the public services - he hoped they would continue until the election.

So brace yourself for GEQs parts three, four, five, six, seven............Star Wars will have nothing on this epic.

Michael Howard
Howard admitted he got it wrong
To some eyes, of course, that may not be a bad thing. At least this was good, solid debate about actual policies on key issues for the country.

The battle ground is clear, although it is pretty narrow because the two parties are so close on these issues as to give them very little swinging room.

But both men really did tear the backside out of it this time.

This is, after all, supposed to be as much about backbenchers getting the chance to quiz the prime minister as a dry run for the next election campaign.

Bigger problem

It all kicked off with the prime minister squeezing the maximum embarrassment out of Mr Howard's previous gaffe that one of his constituents had faced a 20 month waiting time for radio therapy.

Blair relishes the debate
That was not true and Mr Howard had no answer other than that was what his constituent had been told by mistake.

It should have been 20 weeks - and even that was nothing for the prime minister to boast about, he said.

Probably just a touch ungracious - but he knows he has comprehensively lost this one.

The bigger problem is whether this blunder has reinforced any view that the Tories still cannot be trusted on health and education.

It is a claim Mr Howard is determined to meet head on, by raising it time and again in question time.

It will make for a fascinating, if high-risk election campaign for the Tories who have traditionally not fared will in that battle ground.

But it looks like there will be plenty of time for him to practice his tactic during PMQs.




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