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13 February 2015

Slimeballs and sleeping bags: BBC2’s Inside the Commons

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

By Rachel Cooke

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. 

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