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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 July, 2004, 12:15 GMT 13:15 UK
Prime minister's questions
Sketch
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online Political Correspondent

When Tony Blair faced Michael Howard and Charles Kennedy over the despatch box, he knew what was in the Butler report.

Only a warm up act for Butler
And thanks to a crack-of-dawn briefing, Messrs Howard and Kennedy also knew what was in it. And they all knew the others knew too.

And, thanks to impeccable timing, they couldn't talk about it because it had not yet been officially released.

So, inevitably, question time played much the same role as Sir Cliff Richard might as warm up act to Marilyn Manson.

We were all "interested", partly because of the simple fact the event was being held at all and partly because of the incongruity of it all.

But we were all shuffling our feet and looking at our watches in eager anticipation of the shock, horror and blood letting we hoped was to come. Forever the optimists.

Engaging irritant

The opposition leaders did their best to bug the prime minister over the MRSA "killer" apparently sweeping through the NHS like salmonella through a lukewarm kebab.

Michael Howard
Howard attacked council tax rises
And there was a mildly diverting clash over council tax which, to be honest, might have sparked some enthusiasm on another day.

All this was set firmly in the context of Thursday's Birmingham Hodge Hill and Leicester South by-elections.

Labour's engaging irritant Tony Wright even kicked things off in sprightly fashion by gently teasing the prime minister about his readiness to offer a Democratic US President as much support as he does George Bush.

But, just like Butler, the prime minister simply cannot talk about such things.

In this case it is because he has no intention of breaking the tradition that prime ministers don't interfere in other countries' politics. No other reason at all.

But 20 minutes in, most of us probably stopped listening as the clock crept enticingly towards 12.30 and Lord Butler's press conference.




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