I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor

I’ve been on last slot on bench duty this week, so have had the opportunity to observe the nightly rituals carried out by the Deputy Speaker and various MITs (men in tights, ‘though not all wear tights and one of them is a woman) after business has finished in the Commons. I may have this not quite in the right order, particularly as most of it happens almost out of sight behind the Speakers Chair, but trust me, this is more than you’ll ever need to know. Much more.

Say it’s a Monday night. We get to 10.30pm, or if there have been late votes, 30 minutes after the adjournment debate began. The Deputy Speaker stands, ‘Order Order’ he/ she says, and starts to leave the Chair.

One of the MITs walks in, picks up the mace (at which point all MPs still in the Chamber have to stand up ‘for the mace’), swings it over his/ her shoulder and walks out behind the Speaker’s Chair, whereupon he/ she hands the mace to someone else who walks backwards with it a bit, and then veers off to the right and stands there holding it.

At some point a shout goes up from each end of the Chamber, “Home!” and someone else behind the Speaker’s Chair replies: “Who goes home?!” No-one answers.

The Dep. Speaker (very rarely the Speaker at this time of night) – who has got down off his perch and is now behind the Chair with various MITs – looks at the the Serjeant-at-Arms. “2.30pm tomorrow!” says the Speaker. “2.30pm tomorrow!” repeats the Serjeant-at-Arms.

Then the Serjeant-at-Arms looks at the Principal Doorkeeper: “2.30pm tomorrow!” says the Serjeant-at-Arms. “2.30pm tomorrow!” says the Principal Doorkeeper back to the Serjeant-at-Arms. At which point, satisfied they all know what time they’re due back at work the next day, they can all go home.

This nightly ritual is evidently a cornerstone of our parliamentary democracy without which the whole edifice would crumble and anarchy would ensue. But I wonder just who dreamt it up? Was there an eighteenth or whatever century equivalent of the Wright Committee set up to decide just how much bowing and scraping and walking backwards and repetition of “2.30pm” there should be at the end of each day? (They say 11.30am on Tuesday night btw, and 10.30am on Wednesday night, and this evening they said “2.30pm on the 22nd February because it’s half-term). Were there any dissenting voices? Did anyone suggest, for example, that it wasn’t quite sufficient for the Speaker to say it to the Serjeant and the Serjeant to say it back, and the Principal Doorkeeper etc, etc, and that perhaps a Deputy Doorkeeper ought to be roped in too to make 100% sure that no-one was going to get it wrong and turn up half an hour earlier or later the next day? And did anyone say, ‘Look this is all very silly and we all know perfectly well what time the business starts each day, so let’s just call it a night when someone shouts ‘Home!’ and all clear off without bothering with any of the fancy stuff?

As a more serious postscript to this, we will be debating some of the recommendations from the Wright Committee on 22nd February, when the Commons returns after half-term recess. (It’s official title of the report is something like ‘Rebuilding the House – Reform of the House of Commons Committee’, but everyone calls it after its chair, Tony Wright).

As it’s House, not Government, business it will be a free vote on things like allowing backbenchers more say over what is discussed on the floor of the House, and having elections for Select Committee chairs. See here for more details.

However… when the Committee drew up its report, there was a dissenting voice from Labour backbencher Natascha Engel, who doesn’t think the proposals go anywhere near far enough, and has now suggested that if we accept the recommendations, we’ll lose a once in a generation chance to really put our House in order. I have a lot of time for Natascha; I will be listening closely to what she says.

Let’s say I agree with Natascha, and want more radical reform, and, in effect, want to send the Committee back to the drawing board. So I vote down the proposals. I vote against reform, but for all the right reasons. I will no doubt be joined in the division lobbies by some of the Tory Tufton Buftons, who turn purple at the very thought of changing anything. Next thing you know I will be listed on Theyworkforyou as “Voted very strongly against the reform of parliament” and this damning indictment will be used as a reference point by constituents and others for months and years to come.

I say this with confidence as I’ve been here before, last time we looked at parliamentary reform (which I think ended up as “Voted against a transparent parliament”). See also “Voted against an inquiry into the Iraq war” (no, I voted against an immediate inquiry and for an inquiry as soon as the troops came home).

We shall see how it all pans out. Chances are I will go along with the Wright Committee recommendations, which I’ve read but have yet to study in depth, on the grounds that some change is better than no change and we need to be seen to be changing in response to the political crisis of the past few years. But we shall see….

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