Politics: PM glides away from MPs' snappy questions

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THE BBC'S first prime ministerial interview - with Anthony Eden, I think - began with the brutally peremptory question: "You're famous for your knowledge of foreign affairs but your expertise in domestic matters is even more impressive. Which would you like to answer questions about first?"

The Liaison Committee has been rather less confrontational than this in its biannual questioning of the Prime Minister. The event gets billed as "a grilling" but it's hardly been toasting. It's more been offering Our Leader pride of place in front of the fire so he can radiate his personal warmth into the room.

But the committee wasn't going to be poodled any more. For the first time in years (politics takes time) it got snappy. It was Edward Leigh who kicked the thing into life, after which they all had a go. The Prime Minister was interrupted. He was contradicted. He was asked impertinently detailed questions about the forecasting model used to predict tax receipts. On more than one occasion - twice, in fact - the proprieties were discarded in an almost improper way.

Edward Leigh launched into his line of questioning so violently that his eyes stood out from his face like fried eggs in a ketchup-splashed dinner plate. He is impressive when roused. "I wasn't asking you that!" he barked at one point, and: "You're very good at answering questions I haven't asked!" He told the Prime Minister that after misleading us all so grievously over Iraq's WMD, we wouldn't fall for it a second time with Iran. In the non-partisan, cross-party, common ground of this committee, this amounted to GBH.

Labour's Ian Gibson was little better. He reminded the PM how social mobility had declined and how income inequality had grown. David Hinchliffe asked whether state hospitals would really be having private wings attached to them (no denial there, interestingly). Peter Ainsworth kept at him until he nearly got the name of the person responsible for raising our carbon emissions target, and Alan Williams sparked a hint of menace from the PM. Having named Iran and Syria as terror havens, Mr Williams suggested, George Bush had given them an incentive to harbour terrorists. "That would be a very severe miscalculation," Mr Blair replied flintily.

But it's very, very hard to nail Our Leader. I've never seen it. He's too good at it, and too good-humoured about it. He twists, he turns, he glides away from the question, he answers the specific with the abstract and the abstract with the particular. You just can't get to him.

But here's a face-to-face question that may cause some damage: "Did you really only hear that the 45-minute weapons were battlefield weapons a year after the war had ended? Why didn't you ask what sort of weapons they were at the time? Didn't you want to know?"