Donald Macintyre's Sketch: With the Rennard affair playing out in the Lords, how they played to the press gallery!
This was a roller coaster, a crazily swinging pendulum, a tale of the repeatedly unexpected
Donald Macintyre writes political sketches for The Independent, having been Jerusalem correspondent since 2004, covering Israel and the Occupied Territories, as well as travelling for the paper to Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Libya and Egypt. As Political Editor and then Chief Political Commentator, he previously covered the John Major and early Tony Blair era. He has written for the Daily Express, Sunday Times, Times and Sunday Telegraph, and Sunday Correspondent. He is the author of Mandelson and the Making of New Labour (2000).
Tuesday 21 January 2014
For once, as their Lordships were only too well aware, the world was watching.
Deep down they will have known that the reason for the attention was the man who, as it turned out, wasn’t there. But it’s nice to have the world’s eye anyway.
And how keyed up we were, having expected Lord Rennard to take his seat. Instead, this was a rollercoaster, a crazily swinging pendulum, a tale of the repeatedly unexpected.
In the morning, after Nick Clegg’s “no apology, no whip” ultimatum, it had all seemed, if not simple, at least a straightforward stand-off.
But as the peers assembled at around 2.30pm, the announcement came that the peer had been suspended during a fresh investigation into his failure to apologise. And then, less than half an hour later, Lord Rennard’s own 2,600-word statement repeating his adamant denials, describing – among much else – his distress and explaining that he was “certainly too ill” to attend.
Many in the chamber may not have realised all this, since unlike in the Commons, a majority do not routinely tap away on iPads.
And anyway no one alluded to the absent man – except, obliquely, Labour’s Lord Davies who told Lord Newby, speaking as he does for the Treasury, that he deserved an “easy ride given your other responsibilities as Liberal Chief Whip”.
In fact for a man who, by virtue of that office and through no fault of his own, is stuck in the middle of this imbroglio, Newby was ever the pro, responding on the economy as if he had nothing offstage to worry about.
Could it be, however, that other peers, noticing that the press gallery was fuller than usual, were having a hard time not playing to it?
Rather more than seemed normal rose to ask about girls’ education, the bedroom tax and Gibraltar – on which Labour’s Donald Anderson and Ukip’s Lord Pearson were both so excited that they spoke at once, obliging the Leader of the Lords, Lord Hill, to plead with them to take it one by one.
Looking down at the Liberal Democrat peers, you couldn’t help reflecting on the secrecy of the inquiry into Lord Rennard’s conduct (which both sides have complained about).
Some critics have unworthily suggested that this was especially odd from a party which had been so het up about secret courts in the Justice and Security Bill.
But this is a slur. Because despite unrest among activists, the Lib Dem legislators – amazingly – voted for the things. So at least they have been consistent.
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