Parliament & Politics: Bloodstained banknotes from the gallery of rogues

The Sketch

ARRIVING IN the House yesterday I was surprised to find it looking rather more dishevelled than is usually the case. Scattered across the floor in front of the mace was a thin drift of bloodstained banknotes. The odd sheet, obeying the famously wayward aerodynamics of paper money, had lodged on the back benches or on the table in front of the Speaker's chair.

It made for an intriguing picture and every now and then a newcomer would arrive and inspect one of the notes hopefully, before discovering that it had been issued by the Bank of Radical Indignation and laying it down again with a disappointed air. It looked as if some corrupt backbencher's wallet had exploded without warning. The truth was more mundane, naturally. Two men in the public gallery had dropped this filthy lucre to protest at arms sales to Indonesia, an outrage for which they were promptly hustled from the gallery.

Thoroughly deplorable, but I have to confess to a certain dismay at missing the moment of launch. It left me feeling a bit like a dedicated Loch Ness watcher who nips off to restock his caravanette-cum-observation post only to find that the monster has been posing for pictures with its baby while he's been gone.

I've been waiting months for someone to throw something from the public gallery. Indeed, it's one of the consoling fantasies of the sketch-writer's life to gaze across at the other end of this occasionally suffocating space and imagine one of those anonymous figures rising up and hurling a missile into the chamber. Sometimes the imaginary ammunition will be relatively benign but at other times, usually when some smirking Labour backbencher is busy oiling the wheels of their own career, the mind will arm that innocuous looking tourist with something more serious - perhaps a Heckler and Koch machine-gun locked on full auto. It isn't just stale rhetoric that conjures these aggressive day-dreams. It's as much the House's sense of its own dignity, a strangely malleable solemnity that can absorb the lazy slouch of frontbench Tories, propping their feet on the dispatch table with a patrician loutishness, or even the closing-time rowdiness of over-excited MPs, but which trembles in affront at the thought of a tie-less reporter or a member of the public writing something down on a sheet of paper.

Perhaps sensitised by that first outrage against parliamentary propriety, the Liberal Democrat MP Peter Brand denounced one of my colleagues to a clerk for chewing nicotine gum in the reporters' gallery, masticatory insolence that clearly could not pass unchallenged. One assault on democracy is quite enough for a single day.

He can perhaps be forgiven for seeking distraction from the debate - a grinding inspection of clauses and amendments to the Road Traffic Bill for which, at one point, the three main parties had mustered four, three and two MPs respectively.

These kind of numbers do strange things to the chemistry of the chamber. The same constituent elements are mixed together and the same kind of friction takes place but combustion is all but impossible. When John Hutton refused to give way to Evan Harris,the thwarted MP blinked with feigned amazement and looked around for support. If the House had been full he would have been rewarded with pantomime "oooohh!" but yesterday, not a murmur. The only relief from the proceedings lay in counting the number of times Liberal Democrats were teased about their prospects in the impending leadership campaign.

Already weary of this limited joke, Dr Harris expressed the hope that honourable members would soon become bored with it too. I fear he has greatly underestimated his colleagues' heroic capacity to withstand tedium.

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