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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 January 2005, 13:52 GMT
Prime minister's questions
Sketch
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

Prime Minister's question time might just as well be scrapped.

Let's re-name question time
Or at least, now we are in what seems to be a 15 week election campaign, it might be re-named - something like soap box weekly, or hustings half hour perhaps.

Neither Tony Blair or Michael Howard made any real attempt to approach this session in anything other than full-on campaigning mode.

The prime minister even seemed to confirm the election would be in May by declaring there was a Budget to come first. That does not rule out April, but all the indications now point to May.

And they gave another insight into what the campaign will focus on - taxation and spending. Although whether they will be able to sustain that until 5 May takes some believing.

Mr Howard urged the prime minister to offer another pre-election pledge not to raise the basic rate of income tax.

First budget

When Mr Blair failed to do so, the Tory leader went on to suggest that, even if he did, no one would believe him because he had raised taxes, specifically national insurance, after the last election.

Labour would do what it always did and put up taxes in the first budget after the next election, he declared.

Michael Howard
Howard demanded tax pledge
The prime minister, cheered on by a party now apparently united in its desire to get stuck into the campaign, declared he would make his announcements in the election manifesto.

As for the Tories' recently published tax and spending plans, its figures were nonsense and Mr Howard's plans to offer tax cuts along with extra spending entirely unbelievable.

The inevitable outcome of electing a Tory government would be to see public services slashed and unemployment increasing, he said.

Eventually, Speaker Michael Martin snapped. Question Time was not election time, he more or less said. The two leaders should concentrate on talking only about their own policies.

Iraq abuse

Mr Howard, it has to be said, did not look entirely ready yet for the election fight. Perhaps he is keeping his powder dry to the "real" campaign - a dangerous tactic.

Tony Blair
Blair ridiculed Tory spending plans
Meanwhile Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy concentrated his questions on the shocking Iraq abuse photographs.

He may have felt a twinge of the squeeze he might experience when the campaign is in full swing and attention inevitably hones in on the two main parties.

But he also appears to believe his consistent stand on the war on Iraq and its subsequent occupation will continue to attract support.

But, for today at least, this was probably the nearest the British public will get to a televised election "debate" between Mr Blair and Mr Howard.




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