Left, left, left, you 'orrible little MP

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The Independent Online
Tont Blair's new model army of backbenchers is off to battle again - but this time it's the real thing, writes Stephen Castle.

With a new youthful intake, few of whom experienced National Service - and plenty of former CND members - the Government is concerned that its ranks contain few people with any experience of the military.

So it's off to play soldiers for the new Labour team, in a move which could see Tony Benn in combat fatigues and Dennis Skinner on parade.

George Robertson, Secretary of State for Defence, is planning to expand a scheme under which MPs spend at least 21 days a year with the Army, the Royal Navy or the Royal Air Force.

Mr Robertson said: "We have a lot of new, much younger MPs whose contact with the military is pretty sketchy. I want them to be able to see from the inside what is done and why our troops have got such a worldwide reputation."

Mr Robertson admits to being on a steep learning curve himself, arguing: "It's a generational thing. I'm beyond National Service and so was my predecessor [Michael Portillo] so we've had no contact."

He said that the scheme had been running on a "shoe-string" and that he is looking at the "cost implications" of expanding it. An annual budget of around pounds 6,000 is provided by sponsors Rolls-Royce, Vickers and British Aerospace to cover MPs' travel costs.

Since 1988, 49 MPs have taken part, including one of Mr Robertson's deputies, the Armed Forces Minister, John Reid. He told an internal MoD publication: "It's a marvellous scheme. It's interesting, challenging, exciting and out of the ordinary."

One minister who is likely to agree is the party's Chief Whip, Nick Brown. He has been pondering how to keep the massed ranks of Labour MPs occupied and out of trouble for the next five years.