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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 November, 2004, 13:07 GMT
Prime minister's questions
Commentary
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

Tony Blair has not overturned his decision on the future of the Black Watch - because no decision has been made, he told MPs.

Blair denied reversal on Black Watch
That came as a surprise to some of those MPs and others who claim to have been briefed that the regiment has been saved by the prime minister.

Michael Howard knows full well that something is going on behind the scenes.

And he knows it is impossible for the prime minister to reveal those manoeuvrings.

So, waving a copy of a Scottish newspaper with the headline "Saved" across its front page, he demanded that Mr Blair put an end to the "shambles".

Completely wrong

"Does he not understand how shameful it is to treat the Black Watch and their families in this way at a time when they face such great danger in Iraq?" he asked.

That prompted the prime minister to switch into his best "how could he" mode.

Michael Howard
Howard accused Blair of acting shamefully
He started by spluttering: "Really, I do really...." in a show of disbelieving horror that Mr Howard should raise the issue in such a way.

Composing himself, he declared how utterly surprised he was at the opposition leader's behaviour.

"He knows perfectly well that the army has to take that decision. His attempt to say we are somehow undermining the Black Watch in Iraq is completely wrong," he snapped.

This was just another piece of "shoddy opportunism", he added.

The government line on all this is simple. There has been no decision to scrap or merge the regiment, so there can have been no decision to reverse that non-decision.

Good old spin

The army's top brass have been looking at ways of making the forces more efficient and flexible and should be allowed to get on with it.

Charles Kennedy
Kennedy wanted pledge on troops
A decision, said the prime minister, would be announced shortly.

To be fair, this is precisely the line Mr Blair has taken throughout.

But that has done little to stop speculation on the future of the regiment - with widespread suspicion there is a bit of good old spin going on here.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy pushed the argument into different territory with another attempt to win a pledge from the prime minister that no further troops would be deployed to US controlled parts of Iraq once the Black Watch returned home at Christmas.

It didn't quite come off. All he won was the not-very-reassuring reassurance that there were "no plans" to redeploy further British troops to the role currently being fulfilled by the Black Watch.

Then there were a series of moderately barbed questions about the prime ministers visit to Washington on Thursday.

Those were ultimately met with a response that will do little to placate many Labour backbenchers - that they should be "proud" of the UK's relationship with the US.




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