PROROGUE STATE

A mate of mine recently indulged in a bit of cash-in-hand work roadying for – wait for it – ye olde Goth band Fields of the Nephilim (yes, they still exist); for those who weren’t regular readers of the music press in the mid-80s, the Nephilim were the Boyzone to The Sisters of Mercy’s Take That. Never major league players, the band nevertheless continue to attract a committed cult of hardcore followers on the road, some of whom have clearly experienced mental health issues according to the reports I received of the ones camped outside every venue on the tour. Acting as a makeshift security guard to keep said fans away from the band, my friend exchanged a few civil words with them and was a little unnerved by their stalker-like, delusional conviction they were on intimate terms with individual members; if they could just say hello, all would be well with the world.

I only thought of this because I noticed those bloody flags being waved once again outside Parliament yesterday; the brandishers of both EU and Union Jack varieties are now a seemingly permanent fixture whenever a live broadcast takes place from Westminster – and there have been plenty of those of late. The same old shouting in an attempt to drown out updates on Commons events has become a tedious accompaniment to the sight of the flags themselves. Yes, this is an issue that provokes passions (which is putting it mildly), but to be there apparently every day all day long takes either incredible stamina or simply reflects the same absence of any other purpose in life as evident in the Nephilim stalkers. At least that guy who set up a ‘peace camp’ on Parliament Square and lived in a tent there for years appeared quite chilled-out; this lot seem to be akin to noisy neighbours engaged in a never-ending back-garden barbeque.

Within the walls of the establishment they’re intent on besieging, behaviour was rather less dignified, however; and it started as it meant to go on. Confronted by the unprecedented protocol-breaking threat of the Tories planning to put forward a candidate to stand against the Speaker (still a member of their own party) at the next Election, Bercow bowed-out at last – or at least announced the date of his departure. The fact he chose 31 October was entirely in keeping with the relentless exhibitionism of his ego, eager to steal the headlines on a day he knew even the dependable vanity of his puffed-up posturing might not be enough to make him the centre of attention.

What followed Bercow’s announcement – delivered in the curious manner of an Englishman abroad trying to make himself understood to a native – was a nauseating outpouring of sentimental arse-licking listing the Speaker’s achievements in the chair, albeit praise that mysteriously overlooked recent bullying allegations or even Bercow’s membership of the horrible pro-Apartheid Monday Club back in his Young Conservative days. The standing ovation Little John received from the Opposition side of the House was in stark contrast to the sedentary reaction from the Government side, though both were equally stage-managed with all the childish petulance we’ve sadly come to expect from the tenants of this particular Palace.

But, of course, despite Bercow’s desperation to be the lead story on the bulletins, the latest instalment in the exciting adventures of Boris the Prime Minister inevitably claimed top-of-the-bill status when the time came for debate. The resignation of Amber Rudd over the weekend has been portrayed by some as a catastrophic blow to the Government, yet her presence as a prominent Remainer in the PM’s Cabinet seemed incongruous from the off, especially when there was no room for a vocal Brexiteer like Penny Mordaunt. Rudd attempted to justify her survivor status as one of the few leftovers from the Maybot’s lot by claiming she had been converted to No Deal as an option, though few were convinced; she cited the expulsion of 21 colleagues from the party as the main reason for her walking, but her tiny majority at the last General Election suggested she might not be around to hold another Ministry come the next one.

Ah, yes – the next General Election; that was the main issue under the spotlight as Monday evening seamlessly segued into Tuesday morning and the Commons paid no heed to the clock. Considering Boris had begun the day sharing a podium with the Taoiseach over in Dublin, he didn’t appear sleep-deprived when stating his case for giving the electorate the opportunity to decide. That the Prime Minister even has to plead for the right of the people to elect or evict their representatives is a farce; that a majority of those elected last time round won’t sanction that right does far more to demean the standing of honourable members than the PM proroguing Parliament. The double-standard hypocrisy of Labour, Lib Dem and SNP members in decrying the decision to suspend proceedings whilst simultaneously refusing the electorate the chance to play their democratic part is rich indeed. Fine for the plebs to participate in a bloody referendum – whether on the EU or Scottish Independence (remember – those ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunities?); but when it comes to determining the futures of their elected representatives, forget it.

The grandstanding stunts the opposition parties engaged in when the time finally came for the Speaker to relocate from one House to the other in the bizarre prorogation ceremony were further unedifying examples of their detachment from the voters. To an outsider following events live on BBC Parliament, their theatrical behaviour added to the surreal spectacle of the obscene, otherworldly bubble these people inhabit once they set foot inside that crumbling Gothic edifice whose decaying fixtures and fittings are more than an apt metaphor for the whole rotten institution. I almost felt I was witnessing a scene from the superb 1972 satirical movie on the madness of the British aristocracy, ‘The Ruling Class’, when the three wise peers solemnly sat before the gathered executive and officially announced Parliament’s slide into suspended animation. It was certainly a viewing experience straight from the imagination of Lewis Carroll, but as a portrait of Great British democracy in 2019, it kind-of said everything.

So, Party Conference season up next, and then we’re back in five weeks for the Queen’s Speech. Boris and his team will have hoped to have evaded a No Deal grilling by then, despite demands (and apparently legal requirements) for confidential correspondence on ‘Project Yellowhammer’ to be made public. The PM is insistent he can achieve a deal with the EU before Halloween, but remains adamant he won’t beg for yet another extension to the endlessly delayed deadline, regardless of the new law saying he must do so and the additional threat of a possible spell behind bars if he refuses. And even if the postponed General Election Labour have spent the last two years calling for won’t sort out a shambles entirely of Parliament’s making, it would at least give voters the chance to show the door to so many whose arrogant entitlement and superiority complexes have put us where we are.

© The Editor

SPEAKER’S CORNER

bercowMP David Davis is currently known for forming one-third of an uneasy trio with Bo-Jo and Dr Fox to which Theresa May has assigned the tricky task of extricating the UK from the EU; plucked from the backbenches he had inhabited ever since his highly-publicised stunt of quitting Cameron’s Shadow Cabinet in 2008, resigning his seat and then standing for it again, Davis now has the kind of responsibility his 30-year career in Parliament has often hinted at but has never previously seemed likely. However, when he’d only been in the job for a couple of years, he wrote a book timed to coincide with the long-awaited televising of the Commons.

‘The BBC Viewer’s Guide to Parliament’ is a slim little volume penned by Davis and published in 1989. I picked it off the Oxfam bookshelf around five years ago and have to admit it is a handy layman’s introduction to the beguiling institution, one that deciphers some of the more incomprehensible traditions and phrases that regularly crop up both in the press and on TV, the kind that are rarely explained by political anoraks because the assumption is that everybody reading or watching must understand them or wouldn’t be reading or watching in the first place. The cover features ‘Punch’-like caricatures of Thatcher, Kinnock, Lawson, Hattersley, Howe and Robin Cook as well as the then-Speaker of the House, Bernard Weatherill.

The key difference between Weatherill and his three successors in the Speaker’s Chair, Betty Boothroyd, Michael Martin and John Bercow, is evident in his caricature on the cover of the book; he’s depicted wearing the long judge’s wig that had formed part of the Speaker’s traditional uniform for centuries. When the House of Commons finally made it to TV screens, he did indeed appear in the customary apparel and added to the theatre of the spectacle in the process, as befitting the holder of one of Parliament’s oldest posts (dating back to at least 1258).

When Boothroyd became the first female Speaker in 1992, she decided to dispense with the wig and neither of the two men to follow her has chosen to revive it; perhaps television exposure gave the public the impression that the archaic visual trimmings of the Commons were an indication of how out-of-touch Parliament was, and the ‘modernising’ approach from Blair’s Government onwards seems to have mistaken window dressing for content when it comes to how Parliament is perceived by the man-in-the-street. Personally, I believe the grandiose Gothic setting of the Palace of Westminster is entirely suited to powdered periwigs and foppish finery, and no amount of sartorial modernisation can compensate for fixing the factors that provoke genuine grievances in the average member of the electorate.

The last Speaker of the House, Michael Martin, was infamously and unceremoniously ousted in 2009, when he was embroiled in the Expenses’ Scandal, the first Speaker to have been forced out in such a manner since 1659. His successor, the divisive John Bercow, has held the post ever since, despite his widespread unpopularity amongst fellow Tories. Once a member of the notorious, borderline racist far-right Conservative Monday Club, the pint-sized Tory has drifted towards the centre over the past decade or so and has usually found more support within Labour and Lib Dem ranks as a consequence.

As a member of Ian Duncan Smith’s Shadow Cabinet in 2002, Bercow defied IDS’s three-line whip ordering the Tories to vote against Labour’s bill to give unmarried gay and heterosexual couples the right to adopt; his resignation as a result confirmed his embrace of a more socially liberal agenda. The enmity felt towards him by members of his own party was later highlighted during his election as Speaker when it was alleged as few as three Tory MPs voted for him; his election was largely achieved via Labour MPs, who were well aware of the dislike of Bercow in Conservative circles.

The Tory-led Coalition attempted a sneaky ruse to depose Bercow in 2015, proposing a secret ballot vote on the Speaker’s re-election after the upcoming General Election, a motion introduced on the eve of Parliament’s dissolution and in the absence of several Labour MPs who had already headed back to their constituencies. It failed and Bercow was re-elected following the Election.

Two incidents in the Commons yesterday underlined Bercow’s curious relationship with the Conservative Party. The first followed Theresa May referring to one of Jeremy Corbyn’s front-bench London clique, Emily Thornberry, by her actual title of ‘Lady Nugee’; the Shadow Foreign Secretary who sneered at the working-class with her White Van Tweet of 2014 and sent her son to a ‘partially selective’ school (ala noted migraine-sufferer Diane Abbott), clearly regarded this as an insult that doesn’t sit comfortably on her socialist shoulders. She simmered and stewed before crying to teacher, prompting the Speaker to intervene and rebuke the PM.

Bercow grabbed more headlines, however, with his assertion that he would oppose any invitation to President Trump to address both Houses in Westminster Hall; he reminded the Commons this was an entirely optional honour and not necessarily an obligatory one, but he also managed to emphasise his own personal opposition to the Donald’s current travel ban concerning citizens of several Muslim countries. Labour, Lib Dem and SNP MPs who supported the Speaker’s outburst claimed Bercow was saying what many of them thought re the State Visit of the US President, filling the vacuum left by the Prime Minister’s hasty jaunt to Washington and apparent ease in overlooking contentious policies in her desperation to secure a trade deal; prominent Tories, on the other hand, accused Bercow of playing to the gallery and seeking publicity by jumping on the anti-Trump bandwagon.

The impartiality of the Speaker of the House, regardless of which party he or she belongs to, is supposed to be one of the position’s job descriptions, and Bercow has been deemed by some as overstepping the mark with his comments on Trump. One could say he was echoing the sentiments of the majority of the public where Trump is concerned; others could say he and his missus are a little too fond of the limelight and should keep their opinions to themselves. Whichever side of the argument you fall on, there’s no denying that in this 24-hour media age, the post that is almost as ancient as Parliament itself hasn’t been rendered irrelevant by the passage of time, retaining the ability to make itself heard in a way that David Davis’s little guidebook failed to foresee nearly thirty years ago.

© The Editor