Afghan deaths should sober us all

WEDNESDAY after depressing Wednesday, the Prime Minister has opened his weekly Commons question time with the latest names of British servicemen killed on active duty.

By Graham Dines

WEDNESDAY after depressing Wednesday, the Prime Minister has opened his weekly Commons question time with the latest names of British servicemen killed on active duty.

We've got used to the ever rising toll of soldiers killed in Iraq. But now that Afghanistan - far from the peace keeping role we had been promised - has turned into another killing field splattered with British blood, Tony Blair's roll of honour gets longer.

It always gives MPs a few seconds of sober reflection before they start screaming at one another. But events in Mumbai gave Mr Blair the perfect opportunity > to issue a “we'll fight them on the beaches” warning to international terrorists.

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“Our message to the people of India is that we stand with them in solidarity to defeat this terrorism wherever it exists,” he told the Commons.

His rhetoric was matched by Tory leader David Cameron who said the attacks in India were indiscriminate and showed no country was immune from such terrorism. Coming so soon after Britain remembered the July 7 outrages on the London transport system and with a similar multiple bombing in Madrid still in the memory, there's no doubting there is much sympathy in the Commons for the people of Mumbai, especially as so many Indian ex-pats live over here.

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But needless to say the air of gloom didn't last long as Mr Cameron was teased about his “hug a hoodie” speech on Monday - we must find out the causes for the social misbehaviour of deeply misunderstood young men.

The Government's retreat over police mergers gave Mr Cameron the opportunity to make the Prime Minister squirm in discomfort and he came up with the best joke of the day - he accused Mr Blair of “wasting police time” for a costly exercise he had been forced to abandon in the face of almost universal condemnation.

Mr Blair insisted - but not very convincingly - that the mergers were “not off the agenda” but conceded it would not be sensible to force them on police. Given that only a handful of Labour MPs besotted with regionalisation were prepared to stand up and support probably helped the Prime Minister tell a sad looking Home Secretary John Reid to throw in the towel.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott was again missing from the Chamber. The man who will be in charge of the country while the Blairs are sunning themselves in Barbados, Egypt or Tuscany or wherever else they have managed to find a freebie, was in Turkey on official business deputising for his boss.

But now that questions are being asked over Cowboy John's links with Millennium Dome owner and would-be super casino operator Philip Anshutz, it's increasingly noticeable that Mr Blair is distancing himself from the hapless Prescott. He failed to give his deputy his unqualified backing when questioned by Mr Cameron, a sure sign that things aren't well down on the ranch.

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell once again asked about the unequal extradition treaty with the United States which will see the NatWest Three sent to Texas today. If it was designed to stir up the anti-US brigade on Labour's benches, it certainly worked - adding to a generally uncomfortable 30 minutes question time for the PM.


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