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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 June 2006, 12:35 GMT 13:35 UK
A street fight waiting to happen?
Prime minister's questions sketch
By Nick Assinder
BBC News political correspondent

David Cameron
David Cameron: "Any time you fancy it, sunshine"?
You just can't beat a good, old-fashioned bare knuckle fight over (ironically) law and order to whip up backbenchers and get the leaders' finger-jabbing and straining at their leashes.

So the latest focus on allegedly lenient judges and/or rubbish sentencing guidelines was an absolute dead cert for question time as Tony Blair and David Cameron attempted to prove which of them was the hardest.

It was the nearest thing you can get in the supposedly genteel surroundings of the Commons to a street fight.

And after this performance both leaders looked in need of an Asbo each.

David Cameron - attempting to win back some of the Tories' old reputation as the toughest kids on the block - lashed out with an all out assault on Home Secretary John Reid.

He accused Mr Reid of attempting to blame judges, civil servants and voters for the current state of affairs that was, he suggested, seeing vicious criminals being released from prison before they had taken their first scoop of porridge.

Hard man stares

Mr Reid's face was a picture of Glaswegian menace as his guv'nor slapped back, pointing out it was actually all the fault of the old Tory legislation.

I wouldn't have fancied Mr Cameron's chances much if the two of them had been told to sort out their differences in the Commons gym.

Still, Mr Cameron had his own hard man sitting alongside him, in the shape of ex-part-time SAS man David Davis - now Reid versus Davis is a rumble I would pay good money to watch.

Then it all descended into a straightforward scrap: Mr Blair sneering "come on then Davy boy, if you think you're hard enough. You're all talk". And Mr Cameron chanting back "any time you fancy it sunshine".

Reid and Davis continued to stare each other out while the two gangs of backbenchers sneered, jeered and squared up to each other from the safety of their seats: "My homey will 'ave you. Come on, come on."

Worth an Asbo?

Like so many street fights, you just knew that, if the speaker had actually given them permission to go to it, they would have swiftly found a reason to back away.

And let's hope so or those red lines on the carpet keeping the frontbenches swords-lengths away from each other might come in handy again. Although these days it's likely to be flick knives rather than foils.

Just what example this sort of clash sets for the Asbo-attracting section of the population is open to debate, and the exchanges did nothing to increase the understanding of what is really going on with the criminal justice system.

Basically, both leaders were right. Under recent laws, introduced by the government, the most serious offenders get banged up for longer before they can be considered for release while the less serious ones can be considered for release earlier.

But nobody was really interested in the facts here. This was all about looking tough or, as Mr Blair had it, "talking tough and voting soft".

One or two MPs do not enjoy this street-level style contest, fearing it leaves no room for anything other than the most hard-line, illiberal policies to be introduced.

But, of course, the reality is quite different, despite all the talk there are lines neither side will cross - that's why the death penalty is not ever likely to be back on the agenda. Is it?


PRIME MINISTER'S QUESTIONS

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