Robin Cook, where are you now? The former foreign secretary’s prescience wasn’t confined to just racing tips. He also foresaw the impending scandal of MPs’ expenses. According to Chris Mullin’s newly published diaries, A View from the Foothills, Cook attended a Commons committee in 2002 at which a fellow Labour MP, Andrew Mackinlay, pointed out that under the Freedom of Information Act, MPs’ expenses would be subject to public scrutiny retrospectively. “We are in a jam,” said Cook. “Few members have yet tumbled to the juggernaut heading their way.” They have now, Robin, but seven years too late. Mackinlay said he’d been advised (by whom?) that they could probably get away with publishing headline figures, and that it would be desirable to start publishing a year before the deadline so that any fuss would have died down before the election. Thank goodness Mullin took the warning to heart. He has so far escaped unscathed from the scandal.
Mayor Boris Johnson must be a worried man. There is a concerted campaign under way to make Joanna Lumley the Mayor of London. Last week our modern-day Boudicca denied any interest in the job, saying she couldn’t compete with all those people who devote every hour to politics. But it didn’t prevent her taking a potshot at the iniquities of parliament. “The skin of the custard has been peeled back and it is bubbling underneath,” she said.
A few days after earwigging the Home Office minister Phil Woolas about the Gurkhas, she turned up at the launch party for Allegra Huston’s memoir Love Child in Soho Square, where she came face to face with Boris’s younger sister, Rachel Johnson. There was a sharp intake of breath from fellow guests. Were they about to witness a tremendous catfight? Who would triumph in this battle of the blondes? Lumley went into full luvvie mode, reassured Ms Johnson that she wouldn’t be standing for mayor and sent Boris “lots of love”. Mwah, mwah.
Methinks the luvvie doth protest too much. Boris may yet have met his match.
A certain gallows humour is pervading the House of Commons these days. Julia Hobsbawm introduced Damian Green at her Editorial Intelligence talk last week as “the current shadow minister for immigration”. “Well, I was when I got on the Tube to come here,” he joked. Green had been invited to give a Thought for the Evening on the very day that his fellow Tory MP Andrew Mackay had been suspended as David Cameron’s aide. “It’s like being on an RAF base in 1940,” said Green. “You wonder who is going to be next.” Inevitably he praised Cameron’s bold stand on expenses, but there was no mention of the Tory leader’s own dubious claim for £680 (partly for clearing the wisteria from his Oxfordshire chimney), which he has now seen fit to repay.
The £10,000 RSL Ondaatje Prize, awarded to a book which best evokes the spirit of a place, has set a whole new standard for acceptance speeches. When the Libyan novelist Hisham Matar won the award two years ago for his debut novel, In the Country of Men, he insisted on having a cigarette before his address. He then lit up, inhaled and savoured the moment in silence as the crowd looked on agog. He went on to thank the drapes and crystal chandeliers.
This year’s award was carried off on Monday night by Adam Nicolson for Sissinghurst: an Unfinished History. Nicolson told the audience he, too, wanted to savour the moment like Matar, and he fell silent. Then, after a reverential pause, he uttered the words: “I have given up smoking.
It was the greatest disaster of my life.”
A new play by Bryony Lavery, More Light, is a perfect allegory for our times. A tale of life, death, sex,
art and cannibalism, it is about the first emperor of China, who is buried in a tomb with his concubines so that they can serve him in the afterlife. Facing starvation, the women feast on the emperor’s corpse in order to survive. Our MPs are facing a similar dilemma. Interned in the House of Commons, fearing for their political lives, they have only one hope of survival: to eat Speaker Michael Martin alive.