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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 November 2005, 13:38 GMT
Prime minister's questions
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

So, suggested Michael Howard, it's good night from me and it's goodnight from him.

Michael Howard
Howard invoked the name of Peter Mandelson
This political equivalent of the Two Ronnies - without as many laughs or the cross-dressing - was, he suggested, all over bar the last laugh.

And Mr Howard was determined he would have that, at the prime minister's expense.

On the day of the publication of the Turner report on pensions, he tried a few retirement jokes - as the prime minister was clearly expecting and had prepared for.

He also managed to embarrass Mr Blair with demands for him to name the date on which he would finally be joining him in the retirement home for not-so-distressed ex-political leaders.

It's worth noting that the prime minister wasn't about to be drawn on that one - although it appeared to tickle the chancellor's funny bone.

But where was the equivalent of the four candles sketch?

Spin doctor

Mr Howard had kept that one until his very last question as opposition leader. And it was an old favourite.

The prime minister once declared his project would be completed when the Labour party had learned to love Peter Mandelson.

"Can he give us a progress report on that," he asked.

If this is the shape of things to come, question time will be much more fun and a much more important occasion for both the party leaders and British politics.
Nick Assinder's verdict on Michael Howard's question time debut

Mr Mandelson, by the way, is the former Labour spin doctor and minister who set the fashion for double resignations, a la Blunkett, and who now sits in Brussels as Tony Blair's man on the European Commission.

Anyway, the response to this question would have delighted Ronnies Barker and Corbett - it seemed to unite the Commons in mirth and even brought a smile and a bit of a confession from Peter's friend and protector, Tony Blair.

"I have to say on that one, a lot done and a lot left to do". Judging from the response from the Labour benches that might have to be another one for the long grass.

But, this was a relaxed prime minister. Could it be that, of the four opposition leaders he has faced in eight years, Mr Howard had proved the most difficult and caused the most damage and Mr Blair was delighted to see the back of him?

Less fun

When Mr Howard first stepped up to the despatch box as leader just two years and one month ago (as the prime minister delighted in pointing out) he was on a search and destroy mission.

Tony Blair
Blair looked relaxed throughout
And, it was widely agreed, he threw the prime minister onto the back foot with an overwhelming assault that was in stark contrast to his predecessor, Iain Duncan Smith's, performances.

For a number of weeks he took the prime minister's record apart, wrong footed him with unexpected questions and straight forward intimidation.

It took Tony Blair weeks to get the measure of his opponent and, when he did, question time became a bit more predictable and a bit less fun.

There were some particularly good moments for Mr Howard, notably when they clashed over tuition fees and he declared: "This grammar school boy will take no lessons from that public school boy on the importance of children from less privileged backgrounds gaining access to university".

There were also some lows, particularly when he failed to deliver a serious blow to the prime minister over the Hutton report.

Lately, with the prime minister facing probably his most troublesome time in office, Mr Howard has been back on the attack regularly using his own looming retirement from the frontbench to taunt Mr Blair over his future.

Phrases like "we are both old stagers" and "we are both on the way out" hit their mark.

But now it's over to David whoever and we all wait to see whether the new Tory leader will help finish off the prime minister or give him a final pre-retirement reprieve.


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