As episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour go, it wasn’t a classic. It was too long, by a whole half an hour, and the lead character had only been furnished with a single line, that he repeated over and over and over again.
It’s a pity. The constitutional intricacies of the EU referendum are not necessarily the most obvious base ingredients for high comedy, but the farcical elements were there.
When the head of the Civil Service bans ministers from accessing documents in their own departments for reasons that can only honestly be described as political, and the Prime Minister sends out to bat for him a young man who looks like he’s 15, thinks he’s 55, but is 37, there should be laughs there, albeit of a niche kind.
The problem is that, while the Government has an official position on the EU referendum – that Britain should stay in – half the people in the Government don’t agree with it. David Cameron has, some say generously, given his ministers the freedom to campaign as they see fit, but they have now discovered that, if they’re campaigning for Brexit, and there are documents in their department containing information that could be useful to that campaign, the Civil Service will stop them from seeing them.
“Civil servants follow the government position. That is the law,” Hancock said, in response to Bernard Jenkin’s urgent question on the matter. It was so urgent that every other Tory Eurosceptic repeated it with increasingly minor efforts to change the wording, and all of them got the same answer from Hancock.
Against Hancock – that is to say the Cabinet Office minister, not deceased comedian Tony – was the full force of the Conservative Party’s 1852 Committee. An ancient yet not formally acknowledged body within the party, the only condition for entry to the Committee is a refusal to accept it is no longer 1852, and it has rarely been better served than now, and certainly not since 1853.
They all sat in a row on the third bench back, Liam Fox, Julian Lewis, Owen Paterson, Michael Fabricant, Bill Cash, Stewart Jackson and Jenkin himself, all looking utterly thrilled to be in one another’s company, and all wearing the sort of triumphant grin ordinarily seen on the face of a car mechanic on a Spanish holiday who has finally found somewhere that serves baked beans.
‘The Government must function properly,” complained one. “The Government is functioning properly,” came the reply.
“The voters must be informed and empowered to make the decision,” complained another. “The Government is required to express its view,” replied Hancock.
“It is a constitutional outrage to deny briefing papers to ministers,” came another complaint. “The Civil Service is supporting the Government’s position and not any other,” Hancock replied, and on it went.
Dennis Skinner made another of his customarily useful interjections, stating. “Here we are the day after the Oscars. It reminds me of The Godfather. Will it be a horse’s head in the bed? Or another animal?”
It is not merely comparisons with the 1975 Europe referendum that have caused several people in recent days to bring up Tony Benn’s famous “five questions” to those with power (for which there isn’t space here, suffice to say that they all build to the most important one – “How do we get rid of you?”).
What, arguably, he should have thought to ask, as we all must continue to watch the Conservative Party dedicate the political energy of the nation in its entirety to its own parochial civil war, is why on Earth do you want it?
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