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

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Theresa May’s stage-managed election campaign keeps the public at bay

Jeremy Corbyn’s approach may be chaotic, but at least it’s more authentic.

The worst part about running an election campaign for a politician? Having to meet the general public. Those ordinary folk can be a tricky lot, with their lack of regard for being on-message, and their pesky real-life concerns.

But it looks like Theresa May has decided to avoid this inconvenience altogether during this snap general election campaign, as it turns out her visit to Leeds last night was so stage-managed that she barely had to face the public.

Accusations have been whizzing around online that at a campaign event at the Shine building in Leeds, the Prime Minister spoke to a room full of guests invited by the party, rather than local people or people who work in the building’s office space.

The Telegraph’s Chris Hope tweeted a picture of the room in which May was addressing her audience yesterday evening a little before 7pm. He pointed out that, being in Leeds, she was in “Labour territory”:

But a few locals who spied this picture online claimed that the audience did not look like who you’d expect to see congregated at Shine – a grade II-listed Victorian school that has been renovated into a community project housing office space and meeting rooms.

“Ask why she didn’t meet any of the people at the business who work in that beautiful building. Everyone there was an invite-only Tory,” tweeted Rik Kendell, a Leeds-based developer and designer who says he works in the Shine building. “She didn’t arrive until we’d all left for the day. Everyone in the building past 6pm was invite-only . . . They seemed to seek out the most clinical corner for their PR photos. Such a beautiful building to work in.”

Other tweeters also found the snapshot jarring:

Shine’s founders have pointed out that they didn’t host or invite Theresa May – rather the party hired out the space for a private event: “All visitors pay for meeting space in Shine and we do not seek out, bid for, or otherwise host any political parties,” wrote managing director Dawn O'Keefe. The guestlist was not down to Shine, but to the Tory party.

The audience consisted of journalists and around 150 Tory activists, according to the Guardian. This was instead of employees from the 16 offices housed in the building. I have asked the Conservative Party for clarification of who was in the audience and whether it was invite-only and am awaiting its response.

Jeremy Corbyn accused May of “hiding from the public”, and local Labour MP Richard Burgon commented that, “like a medieval monarch, she simply briefly relocated her travelling court of admirers to town and then moved on without so much as a nod to the people she considers to be her lowly subjects”.

But it doesn’t look like the Tories’ painstaking stage-management is a fool-proof plan. Having uniform audiences of the party faithful on the campaign trail seems to be confusing the Prime Minister somewhat. During a visit to a (rather sparsely populated) factory in Clay Cross, Derbyshire, yesterday, she appeared to forget where exactly on the campaign trail she was:

The management of Corbyn’s campaign has also resulted in gaffes – but for opposite reasons. A slightly more chaotic approach has led to him facing the wrong way, with his back to the cameras.

Corbyn’s blunder is born out of his instinct to address the crowd rather than the cameras – May’s problem is the other way round. Both, however, seem far more comfortable talking to the party faithful, even if they are venturing out of safe seat territory.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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