by Dan Hodges
Does the House of Commons matter? Not the institution per se. Temple of democracy or den of inequity? On that you pays your money, or Stephen Byers’ cab fare, and takes your choice.
The chamber itself. Amphitheatre. Cockpit. Arena of the absurd.
There is a fashionable perception that Parliament, in all its forms, is now an irrelevance. Purists bemoan the callow tenor of its discourse. Modernists its arcane, anachronistic traditions. The right sees a shell, gutted by the faceless bureaucrats of Brussels. The left an inflexible monument to establishment orthodoxy.
In a way, all are right. And all wrong. What happens in the Commons chamber changes nothing. But it influences everything.
Take last week’s CSR. One of the more widely covered political showpieces of recent years. Wall to wall live coverage on the TV news channels. Six, seven, eight pages cleared in the national broadsheets. Not a Chilean miner in sight.
Visible public reaction? Nothing. No beer glasses bouncing off pub widescreens. No empty streets as Osborne rose. No cheeky quips from Andrew Neil: “It’s the comprehensive spending review live from Westminster. Shouldn’t you be at work”?
When England missed a penalty at Euro ’96, half the police forces in Britain deployed in riot gear. When George Osborne announced the demobilisation of the Royal Navy, the end of the welfare state and the reintroduction of feudalism, what was the reaction? According to Socialist Worker On-Line, “There were some scuffles with police, who bizarrely tried to snatch the right to work campaign banner from women activists”. Kent State. Sharpeville. The met police snatch squad targeting the right to work banner. The whole world is watching.
But let’s rewind. Osborne finishes his speech with a flourish. A couple of dozen Tory MPs wave their order papers and leap to their feet. Alan Johnson, thinking on his, points an accusatory finger. In that night’s news bulletins, averaging ten to fifteen minutes CSR coverage, the moment lasts ten seconds. That Friday the comedian Paul O’Grady replays it on his live ITV show. “The bastards”, he calls the Tories, to loud cheers. Hours later, it’s a Youtube hit. Somewhere, a drop of water strikes upon a stone.
Before we become smug, this plays both ways. Labour MPs, seeing their party bested, emerge from the chamber shaken. Their mood is noted by waiting hacks. By Sunday the commentators are as one. “Alan Johnson will not get a serious hearing for Labour’s arguments until his party has restored its own economic credibility. And that can’t start to happen until the opposition’s spokesmen and women stop sounding like people living in a fantasy universe in which there is no deficit to address” – Andrew Rawnsley.
What happens in the House of Commons matters. In both an active and a passive way. It projects. And it reflects.
The roars which greeted Ed Miliband’s first performance at PMQs were not manufactured. They represented a spontaneous outpouring. Respect, mingling with relief. He can do this. He can. Our new leader has the right stuff.
Iain Duncan-Smith never got to hear those cheers. His performances at the dispatch box defined his leadership. And doomed it.
Look at the party chieftains as they bob and weave for advantage in the chamber. You will learn a lot about their political personae. Tony Blair’s first PMQs in opposition were trailed heavily with how he would use the tussles with John Major to seek consensus and interrogate the government in a measured way. Political point scoring was out. His last appearance before the 1997 election saw him lunging across the dispatch box, screaming “Weak! Weak! Weak!” while Labour MPs bayed, and Major cowered. Blair had indeed travelled on a journey.
Major himself was solid, but gaffe-prone. His taunt that John Smith was, “Monsieur Oui, the poodle of Brussels”, is less famous than his questioning of his own cabinet’s parentage. But when he was subsequently forced to make a humiliating u-turn on European qualified majority voting, it proved much more politically damaging. The “bastards” were picked up on a television mic, while “M. Oui” was delivered with the full authority of Parliament.
The exception, often cited to disprove this rule, is William Hague. It is true that he was an effective PMQ performer, and often discomfited Blair, who in government found the ritual an annoyance. It is equally true that it did him bugger all good at the ballot box. But it still had political impact. Hague was able to use his performances in the Commons to silence the doubters in his own ranks. His leadership represented a period when the Tory party retreated into its comfort zone. Hague’s confidence in the chamber contributed to that. Without it, the fate that befell IDS could have befallen him. With unknown consequences.
The problem is that parliament isn’t chic. We are constantly told that we live in a media age. That the politician who slings the fastest, meanest sound bite will always emerge victorious. But it’s still a fact that few politicians have failed to master the Commons and gone on to become masters of their party. Or their country. Remember that time Gordon wiped the floor with Cameron at PMQs? Me neither.
The Commons can insulate, as well as expose. Thatcher was rarely phased in the chamber, shrugging off the most rigorous of questioners. But take her out of her natural habitat and she struggled. Countless enquiries and Parliamentary questions into the sinking of the General Belgrano got nowhere. One appearance on Nationwide, and a geography teacher from Cirencester had her reeling. As Dennis Thatcher raged in the BBC green room that his wife had been, “stitched up by bloody BBC poofs and trots”, Labour was left wondering whether we hadn’t made a mistake in not making Diana Gould party leader. We had. If Thatcher had been similarly humiliated in the chamber during a significant debate, she’d have been in trouble.
The potency of Parliament is also relative to the impotence of the governing party. During the days when we still reveled in a massive majority, one Labour MP became so bored he was hauled in front of the chief whip on a charge of deliberately setting fire to a colleague.
But when the entire government is on the line, things get properly spicy. During the night of the Maastricht vote I personally saw one MP pinned against a staircase in an arm-lock, witnessed a senior female front bencher shove a burly northern whip and tell him he was “fucked”, and heard how another whip threatened a waverer that if he voted the wrong way he’d never see his wife and family again. The Tories were even more pumped.
The real problem with the Commons is that it is everything modern politicians and their apparatchiks hate. It’s random. Difficult to control. Impossible to define. A single speech, intervention, phrase. Everything changes. Reputations, careers, governments. Made or destroyed in an instant.
That is why the liberals are wrong. The Commons is not an obstacle to change. It is the supreme emancipator. And it is why the conservatives are wrong too. Parliament is not a hollowed-out shell. She is the great constant.
It’s PMQs tomorrow. I’ll be watching. So will you.
Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.