» Parliament ¦ What You Can Get Away With

Let us be glad that Hansard, which has recorded great debates in Parliament for years, was still around to capture this piece of high-level intellectual debate:

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): The Prime Minister jests about what words are allowed and not allowed in this Chamber; on the Opposition Benches, we would quite like to hear one word more often from his lips: “growth”.

Further to the question from the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), the problem of corruption in Russia is manifest. On 7 March, this House unanimously agreed a resolution, supported by the Government, calling on them to introduce legislative proposals to make sure that those involved in the murder of Sergei Magnitsky and the corruption that he unveiled were banned from this country. When will those legislative proposals be introduced?

The Prime Minister: I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that the word I am waiting for from him, because he introduced a point of order claiming that I had misled the House, is “sorry”. To be fair to him, he has said sorry to everybody else—you, Mr Speaker, I think, and to the House in general—but the person he accused of doing something wrong he has yet to say “sorry” to. So, until I get that apology, I think I will leave off the answers.

Yes, that’s the Prime Minister of this country refusing to answer questions in Parliament because someone hasn’t apologised to him properly. That’s the sort of behaviour that would shame a playground, so why do we accept it from him?

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I noticed something interesting yesterday in the various discussions of what I want to call ‘sitting-on-the-fence-gate’ but until that becomes commonly understood parlance, I’ll just have to call it the Commons vote on Jeremy Hunt. I noticed two different responses to the idea that the Lib Dem MPs would abstain on the vote. Various ‘political’ types were happily falling over each other in the rush to proclaim what a good idea abstaining was (see here for an example) while more ordinary people I know were completely baffled by the decision, not quite able to understand why such bizarre contortions were going on.

It reminded me of a few weeks ago when I announced I was stepping back from my role on the Cabinet, to give me more time to do other things. I’ve had a few conversations with political types who seem confused by my doing it, and had a bizarre conversation with an anonymous tweeter who insisted I should disclose ‘the real reason I’d quit’, whereas when I told non-political friends about it, they completely understood.

I think these are both symptoms of the same problem in British politics – it’s become completely separate from the world it’s supposed to represent. I don’t believe there was a golden age when everything was perfect, but we seem to have come upon an age where the idea of politics being about a contest and debate between different ideas and ideologies has completely disappeared, to be replaced by a big game in which everyone chooses their team and then cheers them on against the others. Elections are now no longer ‘we need to win so we can do this’, it’s ‘we need to win to stop them winning because they’re bad’. It’s no longer a case of trying to engage the public – look at the turnout figures in all elections – but of merely trying to motivate the supporters of your chosen team to come out and vote, possibly because we haven’t worked out a way to determine an election in terms of who can cheer and clap the loudest.

And it’s not just the politicians who are to blame. The media buy into this because it’s much easier for them to report on a game (especially if they can simplify it to a two-sided one) than it is to report on the nuances of a debate. We don’t discuss the content of Prime Minister’s Questions any more, we discuss who ‘won’, and every new initiative is discussed in terms of how it well affect the polls, or what it might do for someone’s standing in the Cabinet. Let’s not discuss the nuance of whether it’s right that Greggs can claim hot food isn’t hot to stop paying VAT, let’s turn it into a contest as to which party leader can show the most enthusiasm in wolfing down a pasty.

This is why politics looks so ridiculous to most people. The House of Commons looks like nothing more than a middle and upper-class version of Big Brother, as well-educated imbeciles hoot and bray at each other in an effort to win press coverage. I listened to some of the coverage today, and the only sensible-sounding person was John Bercow, asking them to try and behave like vaguely human beings.

British politics says to the people that it’s all a game, that politicians aren’t concerned about changing things, but just want to score points off each other at the best-funded debating society in the world. Things need to change, before most people decide to really stop taking it all seriously and then only the really crazy people will vote.

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A couple of weeks ago I linked to this piece by Desmond Swayne MP, explaining a Christian perspective in favour of equal marriage.

Swayne’s back in the news today, but this time not doing anything worth praising. Instead, he’s been revealed as the chief orchestrator of idiots within Parliament. Yes, it turns out that Tory MPs are so useless, they need someone else to tell them who they should be barracking and howling at like crazed howler monkeys, otherwise they might just end up sitting quietly in the Commons and expecting people to engage in debate like adults.

But no, luckily we’ve got Swayne to give us this wondrous contribution to the history of the Mother of Parliaments:

Given the ‘shivers’ of Christine Lagarde I hope you will agree with me that it will be appropriate for Ed Milliband to be greeted when he rises for the first time (there are no tributes to-day) with vociferous demands for an apology.

“There are no tributes today” Never has a minor bit of information felt so appropriate and relevant. No tributes at all to our gallant Parliamentarians, last seen desperately racking their brains for clues as to why the public might despise them so, then forgetting that quest for answers in favour of indulging in a bit more playground banter and abuse.

Swayne, of course, proclaims himself a Christian. I wonder if he can point to any verses in the Bible that justify his emails. I can only imagine how much the Sermon on the Mount might have been improved if it had been trying to fight for people’s attention above a vast chorus of insults being traded between Romans and Christians.

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We all remember some of the shameful things that happened in Parliament during the last Labour government. Chief among them, of course, were the repeated times when the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats used their majority of votes their to repeatedly block any attempts to discuss House of Lords reform. Then, when it managed to get through, they repeatedly voted down Labour’s proposals for a 100% elected second chamber and referendum on the issue. They certainly weren’t a government who got extremely half-hearted about Lords reform after removing most of the hereditary peers, and allowed whatever meagre Parliamentary time they allocated to discussing it to end in inconclusive votes that achieved nothing beyond kicking it into the long grass for years.

I don’t recall any of that happening, but it must have done for this to make any sense. Otherwise, it’d just be someone blocking the chance to have any further reform of the Lords in order to play political games.

Oh, and the whole ‘we should be concentrating on the economy and not doing anything else in Parliament’ argument? Take a look at this list of bills announced in the 2009 Queen’s Speech when the economy wasn’t doing too well either. Oddly, that seems to have a number of bills included in it (including ones on constitutional reform and Lords reform) that are nothing to do with the economy. Perhaps the Labour Party of 2009 – unlike their modern-day counterparts – were able to understand that it’s possible for a Government and a Parliament to do more than one thing at once.

What might have happened if someone had told William Beveridge there was no time for him to waste writing reports on social insurance while there was a war on?

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One of those little things that’s crept into our internet usage over the last few years is the customer satisfaction query. There’s probably another name for it, but what I’m referring to is the little question you often get asked when you’ve queried an FAQ, a support database or help system. Did this answer your query? they’ll ask at the end of your reading, checking to see if they’ve understood what you were asking and have provided the answers you require.

Why I’m thinking about this is because I was watching David Cameron’s appearance in the House of Commons yesterday. And what I was thinking is ‘how much would it change the way Parliament works if the Speaker could ask that to MPs when they’ve asked questions?’ Of course, part of that would be the fun of seeing John Bercow regularly popping up to ask ‘did that answer the Honourable Member’s question? Yes/No/Partially’ but more fundamentally, it would be interesting if an MP could have some reaction, however minimal, to the non-answer that’s been prevalent in the Commons for years. Just a chance to say ‘I’m sorry, but that wasn’t even an attempt an answer’ might make people wonder just what they’re supposed to be doing there other than braying like idiots.

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Job hunting

It seems my search for a comfortable sinecure will have to continue, as Parliamentary tradition has been upheld now Gerry Adams has decided to end the rather pointless deadock over his resignation by accepting the role as Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead. He may, of course, have noted that David Davis For Freedom took the job of Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds and immediately resigned from it in 2008, so is likely planning the same course of action.

It would be interesting if he could keep the role for just a little while, if only so fans of political trivia can pose obscure questions about holders of offices of profit under the British Crown and seats in the Dáil Éireann.

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I’m sure when Sinn Fein set out to reshape the way the UK was governed, this wasn’t what they had in mind:

A Sinn Fein spokesman told Newsnight that Adams “wrote to the Speaker’s office on Friday and informed him of his resignation. It’s a non-issue from our perspective. He submitted his resignation and that’s it. He’s stepped down from that position. He certainly didn’t apply for the Stewardship of the Manor of Northstead.”

It seems Mr Adams has found some way of resigning from Parliament without going through these ancient procedures.

Is it just me who thinks Adams has missed a trick here? I can imagine him striding across the North Riding, declaring what he intended to do as Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead and causing at least mild consternation amongst some people. And as Iris Robinson currently holds that other notable position of profit under the Crown – the Chiltern Hundreds – it would have provided an interesting political balance between the two.

But, if you are now to be able to simply resign from Parliament without taking up the posts and MPs will not be needed to perform these vitally important roles, I would like to inform the Speaker and the Queen that I will take on both or either of the titles to ensure that these parts of the British Constitution are not just swept under the carpet.

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