Experts leave 'chicken' PM in a flap

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair was accused of "chickening out" after he refused to take questions from a panel of experts during a live commercial radio broadcast yesterday.

Labour officials insisted shortly before the programme went on air that, unlike Michael Howard and Charles Kennedy, the Prime Minister would only take listeners' questions.

Under the format of the programme, broadcast to 200 commercial stations, the experts were to follow-up listeners' questions and provide context and analysis, asking questions themselves. At the insistence of Mr Blair's aides, they were instead ushered from the studio after questioning Mr Howard and Mr Kennedy.

Mr Blair's move, coming after Thursday's BBC Question Time when he appeared under pressure, was seen as an attempt to avoid slip-ups in the last few days of campaigning. Claire Rayner, who was on the panel, rejected the official explanation - that there was confusion between the organisers and Mr Blair's office, saying: "I don't believe it. I think he chickened out. He didn't want an audience that was well-informed.'' Ms Rayner, a lifelong Labour supporter, has already said she will be voting Liberal Democrat.

The organisers also maintained that the format had been agreed in advance with all three parties.

A Labour spokesman said: "We wanted to spend the maximum amount of time talking to members of the public."