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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 January 2005, 13:07 GMT
Prime minister's questions
Sketch
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

Michael Howard found a joke - and a pretty good one.

Michael Spicer tried a joke - and probably wished he hadn't got out of bed this morning.

The art of the question time joke
First, the leader of the opposition reminded MPs that Tony Blair had recently purchased a new house.

"The Chancellor and I are both looking forward to the house warming party," he added.

It took a second or two for the punch line to hit home (the fact that it was a retirement home), but when it did, Tory and Lib Dem MPs fell about while Labour MPs mostly tried, and mostly failed, not to join in the fun.

It was hard to tell whether Gordon Brown had even heard the jibe. But then it is always difficult to tell exactly where Gordon Brown is during prime minister's questions.

Old Labour

Perhaps his mind is on neo-endogenous growth theory, fiscal drift or, perhaps, why he isn't the one not answering the questions from the despatch box.

Then Tory backbencher Michael Spicer tried it on by asking the prime minister what he most despised about Old Labour - and perhaps he was thinking the answer was "Gordon Brown".

Michael Howard
Howard looked to Blair's retirement
But of course not, Mr Brown was, after all, one of the architects of New Labour. And Tony Blair was not about to miss an open goal like that.

It was, he replied, that Old Labour lost two elections, failed to flatten the Tories "and I thank him for allowing me to mention this ....."

So much for the jokes. The serious stuff once again saw the prime minister failing to answer specific questions and, once again, winning a rebuke from the Speaker after he attempted to quiz Mr Howard on his policies instead.

"The leader of the opposition does not have to answer questions, he asks them," he reminded Mr Blair.

ID cards

The two specifics the prime minister avoided were, firstly from Mr Howard - whether he believed the level of immigration into Britain was too high.

Secondly from ex-minister Michael Meacher - that he would not commit British forces to any US led action against Iran .

Both questions appeared to make the prime minister uncomfortable.

As did Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy when he asked why the government had allowed violent crime to increase and why he had abandoned his previous pledge not to introduce ID cards but spend the money on extra police (currently Lib Dem policy).

It had been a less happy question time for the prime minister than the past couple of weeks - until Mr Spicer jumped to his feet.




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