Howard faces Blair for the last time

Michael Howard today marked his final prime minister’s questions as Conservative party leader with dogged questioning on when Tony Blair himself would step down.

A high-spirited session in the House of Commons began when Mr Howard queried Mr Blair about the government’s response to today’s Turner report on pensions.

“Retirement is on both our minds today,” Mr Howard said. When Mr Blair replied by citing the government’s achievements in cutting pensioner poverty, Mr Howard quipped: “It sounds such an enticing prospect that I expect the prime minister will want to join me.”

Reports suggest that Gordon Brown is already planning to scrap key recommendations in the Turner report, namely the suggestion that the basic state pension rise in line with earnings, not prices.

And today the outgoing Tory leader named the chancellor as the key obstacle to pensions reform. Under Labour, Mr Howard said, almost 10,000 occupational pensions had collapsed, and the amount of money people were saving had almost halved.

“There is a growing consensus that in order to deal with this mess we have to ditch the chancellor’s obsession with means testing,” he told MPs.

“The prime minister once said: ‘We can end means testing for pensioners once and for all.’ Now just for once will he stand up to his chancellor and with our support do what needs to be done to sort out one of the greatest challenges this country faces.”

Mr Blair replied that he would be taking “no lessons” from a Conservative party, who he said were responsible for pensions misselling and millions of pensioners on the poverty line, when Labour had achieved so much to improve the lot of those in retirement.

But there was no stopping Mr Howard, who moved on to ask directly when Mr Blair planned to retire as prime minister.

“This is my last appearance at this dispatch box. What we all want to know is how many more the prime minister is going to make – can he confirm that it is still his intention to serve a full third term?” he asked.

Mr Blair refused to give a direct reply, saying only that he had “answered this before”, and instead launched an attack on the Conservatives.

He noted that whoever took over from Michael Howard next Tuesday would have to deal with being the fifth leader he had faced – each of them serving a shorter time than their predecessor.

The prime minister was reminded of a comment he once made, that his “project” for reform would be complete “when the Labour party learns to love Peter Mandelson”.

To loud cheers, Mr Blair admitted there was “a lot done, a lot left to do” on this. But he insisted he had completed the one simple test of a political party – winning elections.

“[The British people] elected this party in 1997, they elected it again in 2001 and again in 2005, and I have no doubt, given the current state of the Conservative party, they will elect it again when the next election comes,” he declared.