Tony Blair launched a strong attack on Michael Howard's record as a minister as they clashed yesterday in the first Prime Minister's Questions since Mr Howard became Tory leader. MPs judged their opening battle a "score draw".
Labour sources admitted Mr Howard's strong performance showed he would be a much more formidable Commons opponent than Iain Duncan Smith, but said Mr Blair had "raised his game" yesterday to meet the new challenge.
Mr Howard won cheers from Tory MPs usually denied his predecessor as he challenged the Prime Minister over what he said was a 50 per cent rise in the cost of running the Government since Labour took power. He said: "Isn't that eloquent testimony to the ineffectiveness, ineptitude and sheer incompetence of this Government, all at the expense of the hard-pressed British taxpayer?"
Mr Blair hit back by reviewing the record of Mr Howard as a minister. He said: "Let's compare who was inept, incompetent and wasted money. Under the Conservatives, 15 per cent interest rates when you were an economics minister. When you were employment minister, a million extra unemployed, one million people in negative equity, £80bn of Government debt. Under this Chancellor, the lowest interest rates, inflation and unemployment for decades, 1.5 million more in work." The Prime Minister then continued Labour's campaign to brand Mr Howard, a former Local Government minister, as "Mr Poll Tax". He said: "Whatever this side has done, none of us when in Government introduced anything as bad as the poll tax ... That's why we say, Same old people, same old policies, same old Tories'."
Mr Howard came to the Commons armed with a dossier compiled by Tory officials called, Blair: his past. He decided not to quote from it unless Mr Blair raised his record as a minister, but used it to hit back when he did. The Tory leader said: "I've got a great big dossier on your past and I haven't even had to sex it up. We can talk about your personal pledge to leave the EU. We can talk about the time you criticised America's 'state-sponsored terrorism'. I wonder if you will be raising that with President Bush next week?
"Or we can talk about the time you praised the fortitude and resolve of the Wapping strikers. I bet you don't remind Rupert Murdoch about that."
Mr Howard added: "I'm very happy to debate the past. But I rather think the British people are more interested in today and tomorrow than yesterday. We will take every opportunity to remind them of the failures today of your discredited Government."
In his second series of questions, the Opposition leader tried to exploit last week's public differences between Mr Blair and Gordon Brown. He asked: "Isn't it an absolute disgrace that while the people of this country feel so let down over schools, over hospitals and over crime, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer spend their time squabbling over who should sit on the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party?"
Mr Blair, returning to Mr Howard's record, said it was "extraordinary" that he should suggest people were "suffering". "If they are suffering under the Chancellor, what was it like when we had a million people repossessed?"
DOSSIER ON BLAIR
"We'll negotiate a withdrawal from the EEC which has drained our natural resources and destroyed jobs" in Sedgefield, 1983
Backed "removal of all nuclear weapons from British territory and expressed solidarity with all campaigners for peace" Parliamentary Labour CND advert signed by Mr Blair
He also criticised America's "evil campaign" against Nicaragua and "President Reagan's state-sponsored terrorism" by signing a Commons motion in 1988.
"We will abolish the House of Lords and replace it with a proper democratically elected second chamber" - speech in 1993