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Blair chided by Labour MP

THE choreography of the Commons, with Labour MPs tamely dancing to the tune of ministers and whips, was attacked by a brave government backbencher last night.

Andrew Mackinlay, Labour MP for Thurrock, attracted roars of support from across the House when he tackled Tony Blair during Prime Minister's Question Time yesterday - urging him to endorse greater independence among his own MPs.

Defying current Commons customs, Mr Mackinlay reminded Mr Blair how they had deplored the "fawning, obsequious, soft-ball, well-rehearsed, planted questions" that Tory MPs put to John Major when he was prime minister.

He then challenged Mr Blair to "encourage, rather than discourage, loyal Labour backbenchers who wish to seek and to provide scrutiny and accountability in this place, without fear or favour and without partial affection."

The Prime Minister replied: "Can I say I fully respect my honourable friend's independence of mind, and I shall do my very best to make sure he retains it."

That was taken by some cynical MPs as a broad hint that he would never offer Mr Mackinlay a ministerial job, and the MP later told The Independent that people would have to make their own minds up about the answer.

"I thought it was rather unusual," Mr Mackinlay said. "The Prime Minister was clearly having to weigh up every word."

But he did say: "I think there is a problem of the choreography of the Commons. More and more is being programmed and planned by the two front benches, and Parliament is being diminished by it."

He was concerned about the ability of select committees to act as an independent check on the executive, but he said the greatest example of the parliamentary chorus line came during Commons question times.

"What happens with questions? Every day, MPs enter a raffle to put questions to ministers or the Prime Minister, two weeks in advance. Every day, parliamentary private secretaries - ministers' political ashtrays - hawk around pro forma questions which ministers want to be asked.

"MPs sign these, and they are put in, these loaded, planted, soft questions.

"I should have thought that on a salary of pounds 44,000 a year, it is not unreasonable to expect MPs to be the architects and authors of their own questions.

"We need to have a signal," he said. "If a prime minister is confident, he should not fear legitimate criticism and probing, and that was what I was inviting the Prime Minister to signal today."

Parliamentary sketch, page 8