Yes, Prime Minister ... oh yes, yes, yes

The once-fractious Commons is now a place where sycophantic members scratch ministers' backs in return for a compliment
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It was all predictable, of course. After the election, the euphoria. Unbounded joy, grateful congratulations all round. And now Tony Blair's pack-drilled regiment of adoring new MPs is settling down to a comfortable life of unmitigated sycophancy.

An unfair judgement, perhaps. But the feeling rises in the gorge persistently as Parliament increasingly becomes a lazy place where members scratch ministers' backs in return for a passing compliment.

One Labour member, the Peterborough MP Helen Brinton, has even inspired an eponymous measure of creepiness on a scale of one to 10, with one "Brinton" marking a mild compliment and 10 signifying sheer, oily, repulsive self- abasement.

With the Tory party still barely forming an opposition, the once-fractious House of Commons is becoming a pale, somnolent shadow of its former self. Take, for example, this incisive contribution at Prime Minister's Questions the other week from Martyn Jones, the member for Clwyd South: "May I congratulate my Right Honourable Friend on his magnificent speech on the environment in New York?" Bowling not so much a long hop as a slow roll-in with a soft fuzzy-felt ball, Mr Jones went on to ask Mr Blair if he would implement the action plan produced at the Cairo conference on population growth.

"My Right Honourable Friend is right in the concern that he raises," the Prime Minister replied. (This is code for "well done Mart, you got the whips' instructions word for word". See also, "I would like to thank my Right Honourable Friend for raising this crucial point"; "I can confirm the truth of everything my RHF says.") Mr Blair then went on - surprise, surprise - to reveal that the Government fully supported the Cairo plan. In fact, he added, the Government spent pounds 70m a year on support for family planning. Is it not impressive that the Prime Minister is able to pluck such a figure out of the air?

There has been speculation that the "creep of the day" feature in The Independent's round-up of Prime Minister's Questions should be replaced instead with a head-count of the worst offenders, so hard is it to pick out just one from myriad candidates.

Just listen to Stuart Bell, MP for Middlesbrough, speaking on 21 May: "Having introduced a Queen's Speech with 26 Bills, much to the delight of the public ... can the Prime Minister tell the House what he proposes to do for an encore?"

Or Patricia Hewitt, MP for Leicester East, on Budget day: "Does my RHF agree ... that millions of families, who have been struggling to pay more than 20 tax rises imposed upon them by the Conservatives, will be hoping in this afternoon's Budget for a cut in VAT on fuel ...?"

There seems to be some sort of game going on, in which Labour backbenchers vie to produce a question so laden with possibilities that the Prime Minister is able to spout his entire election manifesto and then for an encore to have a serious dig at the previous Tory government.

A classic of the genre was delivered on 11 June by John Home Robertson, member for East Lothian. In a rambling question on poverty, he managed to nail the Conservatives as the guilty men before ending with a simple but elegant: "What will the new Labour government do to make things better for people on low incomes?" Mr Blair, in response, embarked on a veritable panoply, which included Sir Donald Acheson's review of health inequality, the windfall tax, tackling youth and long-term unemployment, the minimum wage, the Government's welfare-to-work programme and even the need to get single parents back to work. And he managed to get in a swipe at the last regime for burying the Black report on the problem just after it came to power. Exquisite stuff.

It is not just Prime Minister's Questions that is suffering, either. Day after day, Labour backbenchers get up in debates to make long, Tory- blocking contributions. They allow the minister on the front bench to doze a little, safe in the knowledge that all that will be required in response will be a few congratulatory platitudes.

These speeches are marked by stock phrases, presumably supplied in the new members' freshers' packs during the first week of the new administration. The words "zero tolerance" are obligatory in any contribution on crime; "crusade" must appear in any helpful speech on education; and the phrase "the many, not the few" in just about everything.

Take, for instance, Joan Walley, introducing a debate on GCSE results in her Stoke on Trent North constituency: "I, too, want to make education a crusade ... During the tenure of the previous government, we have seen the few, not the many, receive resources for education provision."

Alan Howarth, the minister concerned, had little difficulty in composing his reply: "I warmly congratulate my honourable friend on securing the debate, and on making the case for her constituents with eloquence, passion and depth of knowledge, and with the commitment that her constituents appreciate ..." And so it went on.

The phenomenon is not just confined to the new members or to the faithful, either. The whips have recently been fulsome in their praise of some of the older hands who, promoted to the most junior ministerial rank as Parliamentary Private Secretaries, have thrown themselves into the job with great fervour.

Deserving of honourable mention in this respect is Alice Mahon, long- term campaigner on a wide range of issues, who has become PPS to Chris Smith, the Heritage Secretary. Although not in the same category as the docile ranks who bob up and down helpfully at question time, she has certainly taken on her new mantle well. Her name still appears on the order paper beside motions on land-mines and Indonesia, but she has other duties, too.

The other week, just before the Government announced its support for the millennium dome, 50 MPs, mostly Labour, signed a motion saying it should be scrapped. Then, 10 days later, another appeared below it, congratulating the Government on its sterling effort to include the whole country in the celebration. Although Ms Mahon was not listed as one of the sponsors, she was dispatched to collect signatures for it on behalf of the Government's cause. Despite her efforts, only 35 MPs signed this motion.

Much of this used to go on under the last government, of course, but the scale of it seems oppressive nowadays. A small band of Labour resisters is emerging, consisting of old offenders such as Ken Livingstone and Jeremy Corbyn along with some new arrivals, including John McDonnell, member for Hayes and Harlington. They will have their work cut out, though, as they battle to cut through the tide of complacency which is sweeping Westminster.

This week Peter Mandelson examined the phenomenon in the Fabian Review. "I'm not talking about an Orwellian regime," he wrote. Actually, Peter, it was you who brought the subject up.

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