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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 December 2004, 15:10 GMT
Prime minister's questions
Sketch
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

Christmas is supposed to be the season of goodwill - a time for peace, understanding and the exchange of gifts.

Leaders engaged in battle of the books
Flinging presents back at the givers in a hissy fit, however, seems just a little out of keeping with the season.

Still, what's good enough for families up and down the nation is good enough for New Labour.

So this new Commons tradition was kicked off in fine style by Labour's chief whip Hilary Armstrong (or strongarm as she is universally known) at the end of another rowdy question time which had turned into the battle of the books.

To explain: thanks to David Blunkett and his latest biography, Tory leader Michael Howard last week had one of his best question times for an age - and the prime minister one of his most difficult.

Mr Howard had delighted in reading out some of the more brutal criticisms the home secretary was said to have made of his cabinet colleagues.

Cunning trap

This week he had the book itself and brandished it at Tony Blair like an old hand grenade with the pin pulled.

Michael Howard
Mr Howard brandished a biog
Perhaps the prime minister might like to read it over Christmas and come back to the House to explain why he and his cabinet (apparently regarded virtually to a man and woman as rubbish by Mr Blunkett) had failed to deliver, said Mr Howard.

Aha (sort of), said Mr Blair in the fashion of Winnie the Pooh addressing a hostile Heffalump who has avoided his cunning trap.

Aha! What about the Woodrow Wyatt diaries that quoted Mr Howard declaring in 1991 that unemployment never mattered.

"Absolute rubbish" mouthed the opposition leader from his seat.

Both sides loved it. It was the last clash of the year, Christmas is beckoning and there is a desperate will amongst many on the backbenches to get into the holidays.

Facing blame

But as they all trooped out of the chamber, the Tory benches pointed out the prime minister had forgotten to take his Christmas present with him.

Tony Blair
Mr Blair tried to turn the tables
And that is when Ms Strongarm appeared to lose it, grabbed the book and threw it in across the chamber in the general direction of Alan Duncan. Oooh er!

Was this a release of frustration over the massive distraction the Blunkett affair has become? If so that's not a good sign for the beleaguered home secretary.

Or was it an eruption of anger after the shambles of the previous day's debate over "euthanasia" for which she might be facing some of the blame?

Either way it did not go down well with Tory Eric Forth asking the Speaker to "throw the book" at the whip. They all need a holiday.

As for Mr Blunkett - sitting a couple of frontbenchers away from the prime minister and looking decidedly down in the mouth - he may also have wondered what the prime minister meant in another jokey aside.

On an entirely unrelated matter, the prime minister told a backbencher that, if it was in his power to avoid "lurid headlines" he would start elsewhere.

One thing

You can read whatever you like into that. So many did, and saw it as a sign of frustration at the Blunkett stories.

Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat Charles Kennedy returned to his attack on the prime minister's plans to bring in ID cards.

Would he finally rule out offering the contract for the computer system to any of the firms responsible for the IT disasters over previous schemes such as the Child Support Agency, he asked.

No, said the prime minister looking a bit surprised. Perhaps he expected Mr Kennedy to attack the scheme on the grounds of illiberalism.

But, for the second week running, and with the help of the chief whip, this question time was overshadowed by one thing - the Blunkett affair.

And goodwill there is becoming decidedly thin on the ground.




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