Donald Macintyre's Sketch: How do you solve a problem called Maria?

If I was faced with the kind of questions she is faced with, I would really be quite worried indeed

Labour’s Dennis Skinner may not abide by the  letter of Page 396 of Erskine May’s Treatise on the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament. But he’s obviously a fan of The Sound of Music.

As often, when an MP is in trouble and there’s an outbreak of widespread public angst about whether parliamentarians are up to the task of “self-regulating themselves”, as Labour’s John Mann put it yesterday, the issue – so far from  dominating the Commons itself – seeps into it under a kind of back door.

So Mann, who lodged the original complaint against Maria Miller and was  yesterday denied a formal Urgent Question by the Speaker, asked on a Point of Order what chance there would be to discuss “not the behaviour and actions of any individual Members” – heaven forbid! – “ but the principle of self-regulation of MPs by MPs?”

This triggered a sonorously lengthy reply from Speaker John Bercow that he was glad about the way Mann had phrased it, because “I feel sure that he is well familiar with Erskine May page 396, which specifically stipulates that there cannot be debate on the conduct of an individual… member, other than on a substantive motion. No substantive motion is on the Order Paper, and therefore no such discussion can – or should – take place.”

Which was fine, except that by then Skinner had seen his opportunity to mention the dreaded name, or half of it anyway.

It had “just crossed my mind” he claimed to the Speaker, “and I thought I had better use it before you do: how do you solve the  problem called Maria?”

Bercow assured MPs that it “was perfectly possible” for the issues raised by Mann to be “aired” in an “orderly” way in “the form of a question or debate” before the Commons broke up this week.

Hmm. Given that no main party’s recent past is  untroubled by expenses problems, don’t hold  your breath.

Earlier we had Eric  Pickles. Maddeningly – though typically – MPs failed to use the “Topical  Questions” section of their session with the Communities and Local Government Secretary to raise the one burning Pickles issue of the day: his surprise outburst against “militant atheists” at the weekend.

Boasting of having stopped an attempt to prevent parish councils starting their meetings with prayers, Pickles had announced: “We are a Christian nation. We have an established Church.  Get over it.”

It was tempting, if difficult, as he spoke at the dispatch box yesterday, to imagine him in clerical garb. Difficult, but not impossible.

Hardly the amiable and self doubting hero of the TV series Rev of course.

But put him in a Cardinal’s red robes and he’d be a dead ringer for Thomas Wolsey, “the Scarlet Beast” himself. After all did Shakespeare, no less, not describe Henry VIII’s henchman as a man  “of unbounded stomach?”

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