Sketch: Questionable tactics of the Labour whips

ANDREW MACKINLAY (Labour, Independent, Thurrock) should be canonised, knighted, awarded a Nobel Prize, given free tickets to every World Cup match and granted the freedom of the Palace of Westminster.

His question to the Prime Minister asked him to recall how MPs groaned at Tory backbenchers, who when in office, asked "fawning, obsequious, softball, well-researched, planted questions".

He demanded an undertaking from Mr Blair to "encourage loyal Labour backbenchers to provide scrutiny and accountability".

Mr Blair looked horrendously uncomfortable - gobsmacked is I think the expression - devoid obviously of any advanced knowledge of this crime of independent free thinking.

With no prepared script he gave an edgy, somewhat menacing, response. "I fully respect my honourable friend's independence of mind and I shall do my very best to make sure he retains it." I translated this as meaning 'You'll never get a job in my government".

The man responsible for all of this, is not, in fairness Tony Blair but from my experience, a quietly spoken, bespectacled, political secretary to Margaret Thatcher, called Stephen Sherbourne.

I first noticed it in those far off days in the early 1980s. Sherbourne had the bright idea of phoning me to inquire rather nervously and apologetically what I was going to ask Mrs Thatcher.

"Michael, I quite understand if this is not possible, but the PM wondered if you might be able to hint to her the broad subject you might want to raise this afternoon. Might it be foreign affairs? Industrial relations? This is simply so that she can give you as helpful an answer as possible."

From here we moved on to Number 10 actually suggesting: "The Prime Minister might like it if you were to raise foreign affairs."

By the 1990s it had developed into Number 10 actually giving you the precise question written out. I even saw some scripts for those who couldn't read or act with stage directions ("pause, wait for noise to die down").

There was a time when most government MPs tabled their own questions because of an interest in a particular subject. They kept the Prime Minister in the dark about the supplementary and enjoyed making her sweat with embarrassment if she could not provide a satisfactory answer. Sometimes they even demanded her resignation.

Gradually, as the gloss wore off, most of us decided that asking questions was not important enough. We wanted to be ministers ourselves. So we were invited to be helpful. Then, to be helpful, we were told what to say. Finally, if we said it without fluffing the lines, we were given a ministerial car and a turn at the wheel.

The Tories started it. I and others like me acquiesced in it. Labour have completed it.

Now the only difference is that most Labour MPs begin their careers wanting their turn at the wheel as soon as possible. This means pleasing the whips from the start, by accepting planted questions to the Prime Minister, asking him if he is aware how marvellous he is.

How else can one explain subsequent questions yesterday from John Hutton (Labour, obsequious, Barrow-In-Furness) and Lindsay Hoyle (Labour, fawning, Chorley) who asked obviously planted questions on health and the National Lottery.

From my seat high in the press gallery, I could see Mr Blair open his file at the right place the instant these two were on their feet, giving the game away that he knew what was in store.

How can I verify all this? I have blood on my hands. I did it as a whip myself.

Michael Brown is the former Tory MP for Brigg and Cleethorpes.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
News
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
News
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
television
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
art
Sport
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
football
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
fashion
News
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
news
Sport
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

£65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable