Who is the lurking tiger shark of the government: Michael Gove or George Osborne?

What if the inhabitants of Westminster and those of the aquarium swapped places? If the whole human hierarchy were stuffed into a tank: the stately grandees in their ermines floating turtlelike at the top; the backbench rays, their eyes firmly focused upw

It is a crystal clear autumn day and Larry, Moe and I are outside Westminster station. Before us, the gold trimmings on Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament are blinging away in the sunshine.

“And this, Larry, is where all the people who run the country work.”

“Why do they run the country?”

“Good question, my friend.”

It feels odd being back here. The last time I came to this Tube station was for a Very Important Meeting with a minister. I had my smart suit on and felt very purposeful, just like all the square-jawed wonks milling around us. Now, though none of our great leaders would dream of pointing it out, I am just a pleb. I’ve got my holey old puffa jacket on and my only purpose is to be first in the queue for the London Aquarium, where Larry, Moe and I plan to spend the morning watching real live sharks.

Larry’s long and fervent relationship with Bob the Builder has come to an abrupt end. It turns out that Bob is “just for babies”. His new hero is Captain Barnacles, star of the sea-life-based educational cartoon The Octonauts. I find little to love about Barnacles, a curiously blank-faced teddy bear in a diving suit, but watching fish at the Aquarium certainly beats counting diggers at the building site down the road.

One day, when Larry is older, perhaps we’ll come to look around the Houses of Parliament, so we can marvel at our democracy in action. But there’s no time for that today, so we cross Westminster Bridge at a snip. Result! We are literally the first people here. A meet-and-greet girl with a pneumatic smile takes our picture and waves us inside.

The first few tanks are just the warm-up: jellyfish like luminous petticoats; furtive hermit crabs; a brace of knobbly sea slugs. Larry scoots past with his eyes on the prize. Deep in the heart of the cavernous building he finds what he is looking for: an enormous, three-storey tank filled with an eye-popping array of sea life. Above us, turtles the size of dining tables perform elegant pirouettes. Rays glide and dip like fat kites. One silver fish has a face uncannily like that of Victor Meldrew. And at the very bottom of the tank, creeping slowly, menacingly, with the terrible snaggle-toothed nonsmile of a James Bond baddy: the sand tiger shark.

Larry is breathless with excitement. “He’s like a monster, Mummy, like a thing, like a big, fat, terrible . . .” He grapples with his limited vocabulary. “Like a BEAST!”

We sit down to watch. After a few minutes, hypnotised by perpetual motion, I drift into a flight of fancy. What if the inhabitants of Westminster and those of the aquarium swapped places? If the whole human hierarchy were stuffed into a tank: the stately grandees in their ermines floating turtlelike at the top; the backbench rays, their eyes firmly focused upwards. Who’d be the lurking tiger shark – George Osborne? Michael Gove?

Meanwhile, the animals would run the country. They would do something about overfishing. Maybe they would ban plastic bags, and cod fish fingers, and oil exploration in the Arctic. As ideas go, I’ve certainly had worse.

Who is the tiger shark of the coalition? Image: Getty

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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