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I wonder what my younger self would’ve made of the House of Lords – and its hairdryers

It was grand and archaic but it reminded me of nothing so much as a giant, souped-up parish council meeting.

The Norman porch of the House of Lords. Photo: Getty

I sat in the House of Lords the other day. Ben and I went for lunch with his godfather, the actor Brian Rix, now Lord Rix, who at 90 years old is still the funniest of men and great company. After we’d eaten, Brian gave us a guided tour, ending at the door of the actual House. A few whispered words were exchanged with a security guard – I swear I heard the phrase “Everything but the Girl” muttered under his breath – and we were ushered through the giant, Hogwarts-like oak door and on to two chairs at the back of the chamber, from where we gazed at the red padded benches, the gold throne and Lord Sir Alan Sugar asking a question about VAT.

Though we stayed for all of five minutes, it was bizarre and thrilling to be there and, slightly tipsy from lunch (as, I imagine, were most of the peers), I felt indulgent and benevolent about the set-up. It was grand and archaic but it reminded me of nothing so much as a giant, souped-up parish council meeting. The aged fustiness of the surroundings and participants added to this impression: during the time we sat there, I heard no one say anything comprehensible and you could easily believe that they were all engaged in some dreary matter of local business – planning permission for the golf club, or the relocation of an incinerator.

Following Brian’s signal, we crept out, stopping on the way to pat the bouncy sniffer dog, which an hour earlier had been checking the empty chamber. (For explosives? Drugs?) Then I went to the loo, behind another heavy oak door, this time marked “Women Peers”. There were two hairdryers plugged in beside the sinks. I pictured rain-drenched baronesses gratefully smartening up their perms before taking their seats. Useful to have a hairdryer there, of course, but there was also something makeshift about it – practical but unstylish, like those pictures you see of the inside of Buckingham Palace, with a two-bar electric heater sitting stranded in an 18th-century marble fireplace.

At dinner that evening, the kids asked me how you got to be in the House of Lords and what the lords did and, as so often on these occasions, I found under questioning that my knowledge was sketchier than I might like to think and blustered through some plausible-sounding answers. What most impressed them was our sighting of Mr Apprentice and they were delighted by the descriptions of waiters constantly addressing Brian as “M’lord”, especially since at one point it seemed as though one of them had directed the phrase at Ben.

Later, on the news, we saw that there had been a protest that day outside the House of Commons; there were scenes of people gathered in the spring sunshine, all holding banners and placards, protesting about NHS cuts. “Oh, dear God,” I said to Ben, “there’s going to be a shot of us in a minute, dressed up to the nines, sweeping past these poor protesters as we swan through the peers’ entrance like a couple of absolute arseholes.”

Thankfully there wasn’t but it gave me pause for thought. Bob Crow had died earlier that day – we’d heard the news just before we set off for our lunch with Brian – and I had been genuinely sad. Often when seeing him interviewed I had said, “He really is of a dying breed and I’m sorry there aren’t still more like him.” What I meant was that he seemed from an era that was almost gone but that I am old enough to remember: of working-class warriors, lefties who looked and talked like proper lefties, who stood for something clear and identifiable and weren’t ashamed to do so.

But my younger self, who first formed those kinds of ideas – discovering socialism in my teens through the NME and Rock Against Racism, writing feminist songs at Hull University and playing Red Wedge gigs in the early Eighties with Ben – what would she have made of me sitting politely in a posh frock and heels in the House of Lords chamber, having thoroughly enjoyed lunch in the formal dining room and a wee in what was, quite literally, the Ladies? She’d have objected, probably: maybe refused on principle to creep through that door and sit on that chair. She would have missed quite an experience. 

 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left