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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 June 2007, 12:56 GMT 13:56 UK
PMQs: Blair's fond farewells
Prime minister's questions sketch
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

Tony Blair's final question time started with probably the most difficult message about the most troublesome issue of his premiership - Iraq.

John Prescott, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown
This was not an occasion for point scoring
It ended with probably the warmest tribute he could have expected about his greatest achievement - Northern Ireland.

In between, this odd and surprising session failed to turn into the expected, Thatcher-style roasting of the opposition party which allowed her to leave claiming: "I'm enjoying this."

It was - with the tacit connivance of the opposition parties - the most theatrical, well-rehearsed and choreographed set-pieces from the master of those arts during his decade in power.

Mr Blair confessed to still feeling a tingle of apprehension whenever he entered the Commons chamber for these sessions.

He should not have worried this time. This was all about giving him a smooth, polite, non-party political farewell - allowing the prime minister his day before, inevitably, moving on.

Indeed, David Cameron ensured that, by paying glowing tributes to the prime minister, any potential conflict and point-scoring was denied. He even encouraged his own MPs to join Labour in the long standing ovation to the outgoing prime minister.

Names of dead

That was one symbol of how Britain has changed after a decade of Blair rule.

When he first entered the chamber in 1997, his inexperienced troops were ticked off by the Speaker for breaking tradition with their outburst of emotional clapping and cheering.

David Cameron
Mr Cameron wished the outgoing prime minister well
It was just not the done thing. A decade later, it is not only allowed but, apparently, to be encouraged.

But it all started in the way it has done virtually every week since the war on Iraq was launched - with the prime minister reading out the names of dead servicemen and women.

This time, he went further. For those demanding an apology, he got as close as he has ever come, but still fell short.

He was, he said, "truly sorry" for the dangers the troops faced in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There was no regret, however. Britain was engaged in a global conflict that had to be won, he suggested.

Most proper

Then it appeared the whole occasion was falling away, with some routine questions from David Cameron threatening to turn into the most disappointing of anti-climaxes.

Until finally, on his fifth approach to the despatch box, he offered his tributes. With Cherie Blair and the children watching from the special galleries, Mr Cameron poured on the praise.

Ian Paisley
Ian Paisley thanked Mr Blair for Northern Ireland work
He noted Mr Blair's "remarkable achievement of being Prime Minister for 10 years", marked his "considerable achievements" in Northern Ireland and the developing world.

The outgoing prime minister returned the compliment, thanking the Tory leader and saying that despite their political differences he had always found him "most proper, correct and courteous".

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell echoed the sentiments, saying Mr Blair had always been "unfailingly courteous".

There were some light-hearted moments. Mr Blair revealed he had received his P45 yesterday and he gently mocked Eurosceptic Tory Sir Nicholas Winterton's demand for a referendum on the latest EU treaty, wishing him "au revoir, auf wiedersehen and arrivederci".

And, asked by Liberal Democrat Richard Younger-Ross about the possibility of disestablishing the Church of England, he replied: "I think I'm really not bothered about that one."

Then, as proceedings drew to a close, the giant figure of Northern Ireland's first minister Ian Paisley rose from his seat. What was coming?

It was the tribute Mr Blair might have asked for - highlighting in the most glowing terms his personal achievements in securing the deal in Northern Ireland.

And how did it end? With a sentence Mr Blair must have honed over the days, or even weeks, but which sounded off the cuff.

"I wish everyone, friend or foe, well. And that is that. The end."




PRIME MINISTER'S QUESTIONS

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