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.

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