I consider myself to be a pretty good storyteller. I can normally spin long drawn-out days in the Commons into pacy, slightly jovial yarns. Not any more: where once there were characters and lively debate, the earth is scorched and nothing but Brexit remains. The days are made longer by their unpredictability: all meetings and normal working practices are cancelled, and instead my diary fills with amendment after amendment. When we are not voting on the amendments, we are discussing what the amendments should be and who should back the amendments. The word amendment has lost all meaning. I might amend it and call it Colin. The Cooper Colin or the Letwin Colin. We could have indicative Colins.
“Has it ever been this bad in parliament?” I ask an old hand, and the answer is simply, “No”. MPs are like zombies. Every morning when I wake up I physically gasp with anxiety about what will occur that day. I can only liken the last week of Brexit votes – one was tied and another won by one – to a scene from Spartacus. I feel as if I am in the gang that line up shields in a block formation and advance forward one step at a time, while cries of treachery and death threats land all around us.
People ask me what is going to happen, hopeful that I have some insider information. The answer is almost always, “I don’t know.” The only thing I know is that when I walk in the chamber each day Bill Cash is on his feet saying the same thing over and over again. When they bring out Now That’s What I Call Brexit, the album, Cash will be every track bar 19, which has been reserved for Ken Clarke, as he is the Father of the House don’t you know.
Recharging back home
On Thursday I received a message from the whips that my day release had been agreed and I was allowed to return for some 72 hours to my loved ones and constituents. Giddy with excitement to be back where I belong, in my constituency office, I had forgotten that I agreed to be interviewed by Sophy Ridge for her flagship Sunday politics show. I thought it would be a down-the-line Brexit soundbite thing, but the woman herself turned up at my slightly ramshackle office for a full-on proper interview.
Obviously, Sophy was coming to talk about Brexit in the main, but after sitting in my office for half an hour and seeing the lives of my constituents in glorious technicolour, the interview became much more about them. She sat with them, joked with them and heard their problems. One man, who has lived in the UK since the 1960s and has more of a Birmingham accent than me, is now having to prove that he and his family have a right to live here. He ran a hairdressing salon for 30 years and offered to do our hair before we went on camera. The stories are often hard to listen to but the people are always warm. Being in my constituency office is like plugging in to recharge before Westminster dwindles the battery.
The car park of England
My cousin is getting married next week. She is eight years younger than me, and this weekend I picked out what to wear for her big day. It dawned on me that this is probably the last family wedding I will attend before my own sons are the next to get hitched. Perhaps the bright maxi I decided on should be replaced with a twin set and pearls in honour of my advancing years.
Because of the oncoming nuptials, my French family have come over for the week, filling my house with lots of small children and enough noisy English-French jibber-jabber to make me reconsider my position on having a close relationship with our European neighbours. I asked Julie, my French sister-in-law, if she had a hotline to Macron in order push him for a longer extension. Apparently, not all French people know each other, which is unhelpful. (Mind you, I do know Theresa May and that’s done me precious few favours.) They are due to return to France two days after we might have a no-deal Brexit, so I popped to the supermarket to get enough supplies for a really good picnic: they may have to spend weeks in Kent, the car park of England.
Over the edge of intelligent discourse
On Sunday I woke up to the unsurprising news that the Labour Party still has an unmanaged anti-Semitism problem. My day then included hundreds of tin hat wearing zealots telling me on Twitter it was all a smear. If you doubt that the left has a problem with Jewish people, my advice is to mention it on social media: you will see people reaching so far to try to justify why it is OK to turn a blind eye to this racism that they fall off the edge of intelligent discourse. Shame that some of them were people who work for the leader and the party. It is not a smear against Jeremy Corbyn, it is a problem and we should fight it.
Waller-Bridge for PM
“The only person I’d run through an airport for is you.” If you don’t know this quote I don’t think we can be friends. Fleabag came to an end this week and I’ve already watched the finale three times. The beauty of this masterpiece is that Phoebe Waller-Bridge, in all she writes, makes women feel real and seen. She writes us as we are. Let’s make her the prime minister. l
Jess Phillips is MP for Birmingham Yardley
This article appears in the 10 Apr 2019 issue of the New Statesman, System failure