Tony has some little lambs, but they never ever bleat

Labour's strangely quiet backbenchers
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THREE backbenchers have been caught out by a newspaper giving identical replies in a telephone interview about the Budget. We can only wonder that so few of them were on cue. Some performance-monitoring unit in Millbank is doubtless busy researching why the take-up rate was so low.

Since they were elected last May, I have watched New Labour backbenchers - people I know to be lively, intelligent and irreverent in private - turn into enfeebled drones. Tony Blair used to urge his supporters to think the unthinkable. Once in Parliament, however, they are are told to shut up until their unthinkables have been cleared in triplicate. As they read out their model answers, ask the right questions and compile their "homemade" publicity posters in accordance with the guidelines - "You will need a large piece of white card, a thick black marker pen and a photogenic child" - no cliche is left uncliched, no repetition unrecycled.

Dull politicians have always relied on verbal props to help them survive the trauma of being asked what they believe. Labour used to mock Tory backbenchers who bowed and scraped to Margaret Thatcher. But Mr Blair's footsoldiers should be a different breed. Far younger than the Tories, they are, on the whole, well-educated products of a meritocracy and not the result of union-dominated selection. On paper, they appear to be an exciting lot. All the sadder that they have become the supine recipients of spin-doctors' orders, as dependent on their pagers for instruction as Linus on his comfort-blanket.

Recently, on a talk-show panel, I encountered one of the brightest stars of the 1997 intake. Just before the show started, she disappeared to the Ladies where I found her earnestly studying her bleeper for last-minute guidance. The results were predictable: on handling of the economy, "Avoid the boom and bust of Tory years." When challenged by a Conservative on any inconsistency, "We're not going to take any lessons from the Tories on ..." (fill in as appropriate and quite often as inappropriate). The phrases "We've got to get people off welfare and into work," and "A society for the many not the few," were delivered in that strange sing-song rhythm which comes from saying the same thing too often. They might as well go into tele-sales. Turn the sound down on your television when a house-trained Labour backbencher starts speaking and you can finish the sentence for them.

Now I'm sure that Alastair Campbell would say that my objections are C-R-A-P. New Labour has to get its message across. Consistency is all. The Tories started to go wrong when they lost the plot and gave the impression of being in disagreement with each other. Look at that (expletive deleted) Brian Sedgemore - all over page two of the Sun yesterday, mauling Gordon Brown about the high pound. Why should we encourage that? You can bore the public catatonic and still convey an impression of competence.

But the thought-controllers' belief that restricting what backbenchers say amplifies the core message is mistaken. Predictability is already beginning to dull the impact. We start listening out for the cliches rather than hearing the words. The repetitious phraseology suggests an under- tow of cynicism. The audience on our chat-show was irritated by the MP's use of formulaic language as a kind of barrier, preventing the penetration of any shard of criticism or doubt. New Labour would be unwise to allow the Tories to become the Party of Plain Speaking. William Hague will make hay with the Government's increasingly stilted language and its distance from the way that real people express themselves.

It is true that the Conservatives suffered in the election because they could not articulate a single message. That was because they were deeply, theologically, divided on Europe. New Labour is not in this position. Mr Blair's main achievement is that he has complete authority in the parliamentary party.The internal opposition is ageing and quiescent. When Mr Sedgemore lashes out at Mr Brown, our response is a resounding, "So what?"

A self-confident governing party should revel in its diversity while celebrating common purpose and values. Admitting the spread of interests, motivations and prejudices among MPs signifies a strength, not a split. Why do the young MPs tell us so little about why they are in politics, about what moves or shocks them? And why do they accept so readily - indeed pre-emptively - the restrictions placed upon them from above? They can't all get promoted by being goody-goodies. New Labour is not a police state. MPs should defend their freedom of speech from the grand inquisitors. They may find that we warm to them as a result.

New minds in Parliament are the seedbed of fresh solutions for age-old problems. But only if the owners of these minds are prepared to use them and to take the occasional risks in the process.As things stand, the only outspoken Labour members are on the margins, like the expansive Rob Marshall- Andrews, who has set up a lunch club with the express purpose of "having a good time and annoying the Government". Very jolly for him, I'm sure, but neither Mr Marshall-Andrews nor Mr Sedgemore lays out a clear new direction they wish the Labour Party to take. They are, to put it politely, entertaining but irrelevant. The backbenches should be more intellectually productive than this.

All governing parties need people around them to think ahead, to be braver and more radical than the present incumbents. That is not "off message" - it is the life-blood of politics. John Redwood was ten years ahead of his party on privatisation. Frank Field campaigned for reform of the welfare state when it was truly unthinkable that a Labour government would ever deliver it. Mr Blair needs to encourage young men and women capable of looking ahead of their time, of laying out brave ideas which can be tested in the heat of debate. Instead, he has a chorus of regulated approval. If you listen to it for too long, you start to hear the bleating of obedient if slightly miserable sheep.