Tick-tock-box politics: Big Ben gets cleaned
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Slimeballs and sleeping bags: BBC2's Inside the Commons

In Parliament, deals are being cut everywhere. Some are gruesome, others merely farcical.

Michael Cockerell’s new series, Inside the Commons (10 February, 9pm), has a jaunty and mischievous tone, as if he were Michael Frayn and Britain’s 650 MPs were the cast of a particularly silly and complicated farce. But this doesn’t mean that, in all its pomp, it can’t make you feel as mad as hell. As I listened to Jacob Rees-Mogg filibuster a private member’s bill that aimed to mitigate the effects of the so-called bedroom tax, my vision was the same colour as the benches in the House of Lords. “But I really want to talk about time,” said the member for North-East Somerset, a smirk smeared on his pasty features like jam on cold rice pudding. And then: “Time, like an ever rolling stream/Bears all its sons away./They fly forgotten as a dream/Dies at the opening day.” Not only was this puerile and, in the end, destructive: I felt the insult in it, too, for he was quoting Isaac Watts, the great Nonconformist theologian and hymn writer.

How can behaviour like this be tolerated, let alone sanctioned, by the machinery of parliament? The sorry truth is that there is simply no appetite for real change; many MPs, if not most, enjoy this stuff, whatever they might say to the contrary. Either they grew up with it, or they’ve aspired to it all their lives. (We’ve already heard David Cameron tell Cockerell that the Commons was a bit like “a school”, to which the only sane response is: speak for yourself. Mine was a leaking Seventies monstrosity surrounded by Portakabins.) Others turn native on arrival, the archaic customs of the place serving either to shore up their self-esteem or to inflate their native pomposity further. Those who do kick up any kind of a fuss are quickly and easily placated, the offer of even a lowly government job having much the same effect as Mogadon.

In the second episode, we saw Robert Halfon, the Conservative member for Harlow in Essex, working hard on the issue of hospital parking fees (he and his constituents want rid). But, then . . . Brring, brring! On the line: No 11. Moments later, he was with the Chancellor, gratitude oozing from his every pore. “I want you to be my eyes and ears,” said George Osborne, in the manner of a king tossing a chicken wing to a peasant. Halfon was to be his new parliamentary private secretary, a job that would involve him keeping his gob firmly shut from now on.

Deals are being cut everywhere. Some are gruesome, others merely farcical. Desperate to grab a few parliamentary hours for the opposition, Thomas Docherty, the Labour MP for Dunfermline, scooted off to see a couple of Tory Eurosceptics: Peter Bone, who sits for Wellingborough, and Christopher Chope, who represents Christchurch. Together, they cooked up a plan. Over the next 48 hours, they would take turns sleeping in a room adjoining that of the Commons clerk responsible for allotting the final few slots available for private members’ bills – so they might be first in the queue on the big day. The sight of Docherty slipping into a sleeping bag in his boxer shorts and socks will stay with me for some time as a symbol of all that is most dumb about the way the Commons works. Parliamentary sessions are just one long game of “bagsy”, the only variation being when MPs play “chicken” instead (Prime Minister’s Questions).

There are still only 148 women MPs, and Cockerell is following a few of them. There’s Charlotte Leslie, a Tory (Bristol) who likes to box, and Sarah Champion, Labour (Rotherham), who still seems rather lost in the Palace of Westminster’s three miles of corridors. He also spoke to Penny Mordaunt, the Tory MP for Portsmouth North, to whom it fell to open the Budget debate last year. By tradition, the first speech in this debate is meant to be funny and Mordaunt obliged with an anecdote featuring the words “penis and testicles” – cue much laughter from all those in possession of these. Then Ed Miliband rose. The leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition congratulated Mordaunt for bravely taking part in the ITV reality show Splash, after which he offered that, should she be in need of a further challenge, she could always try “wrestling a bacon sandwich”. Oh, the glorious mother of parliaments, so decorous and so very witty. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Assad vs Isis

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.