I suppose the Queen's Diamond Jubilee address to both Houses was a grand occasion. There were beefeaters, trumpeters, 20 or so men seemingly dressed up as the Duke of Wellington, officials from the Royal Household carrying white staves (or billiard cues), a man with a name that isn't pronounced as it's spelt ("Cholmondeley" equals "Chumley") togged up in a fantastically brocaded tunic. The two Speakers wore gold-spangled gowns. Male MPs and peers had their better suits on and there were considerably more hats and fascinators than usual around the parliamentary estate.
But, to be honest, it all felt remarkably drab and workaday. Downright Tupperware, in fact. The sound system was so feeble, we craned to hear the Lord Speaker Baroness d'Souza (who you would think would have a brass band of a voice) and the ceremony was minimalist.
Then came the national anthem. I'm used to a degree of uncertainty about anthems as we have two in Wales and some refuse to sing either (John Redwood). But, even as a republican, I was looking forward to a good old blast of "God Save the Queen" in honour of an outstanding monarch. Sadly, when Major S N Haw (MBE) turned round in his magnificent red Scots Guard uniform to conduct us, the band played, but there came forth nothing from the thousand or so assembled souls. Yvette Cooper and Jack Straw claim they were belting it out, but down my end not a soul sang, not even the moustachioed Keith Simpson. So Britain, that nation of pomp and circumstance couldn't even manage to sing its own national anthem. What a shower.
The Queen was splendid. All poise and balance. And, unlike the cruel mockers (and occasional Tory malcontents), I liked Bercow's words. It's difficult to say something while saying nothing, and my row of MPs thought he did it with aplomb.
I say I am a republican, but, to be honest, my problem is with the hangers-on. Prince Andrew takes a luxury chalet in Davos at taxpayers' expense. The Countess of Wessex accepts a "suite" of jewels from the King and Prime Minister of Bahrain, the very men who ordered the extremely violent repression of dissent in their country last spring. Yet MPs are not allowed to speak about the Royal Family in the Commons, not even when they are in receipt of public money. So you can whisper treason in the Dog and Duck, but we can't even ask questions in the Commons.
Shabby news management
It's been a week of shabby parliamentary tactics. On Wednesday, we had the Budget, or rather the Chancellor came along to give us a new gloss on what we had already read in the papers. Then the Government had us sit on Friday so that we could break for Easter on Tuesday, a full 10 days before Good Friday. (Wouldn't everyone like that kind of Easter break?) This was doubly convenient as it would mean no Prime Minister's Questions next Wednesday and no opportunity for the PM to be quizzed about the Budget for a full four weeks.
When the Treasury woke up to screaming headlines about tax cuts for millionaires and tax rises for grannies, though, alarm bells started ringing and Theresa May was forced to bring her statement on alcohol forward from Monday to Friday so as to knock the Budget off the headlines. There have only been three Friday statements in the past 10 years – on foot and mouth, on Iraq and on Libya – and this was no such emergency, so it's a shame that the Government has wasted a good policy for silly news management purposes.
When MPs invoke the sanity clause
Just sometimes MPs can stop themselves in their own tracks. Edward Leigh, the Tory MP for Gainsborough, did it this week in Culture Questions. He was trying to ask about tickets for the Olympics. "We, the taxpayers, have spent £9bn on the Olympics and we are very proud of them," he started. So far so good. But then he continued, "Everybody I talk to, including myself," at which point, just as we started to laugh, whimsy descended upon him mid-sentence and he spluttered, "I occasionally talk to myself." For a long moment, he looked strangely bewildered, as if he was genuinely wondering whether he was mad. The laughter grew and he had to beg the House to calm down and come to order, as even the Speaker was convulsed by the image of a member publicly realising he was just a little bit deranged.
I'm also getting a bit worried about Ed Vaizey, the Arts Minister. He's one of the more charming Tories, but he's taken to fake expressions of sudden outrage which he calls "channelling his inner Boris". This week, he was pressed about why Morocco is going to get universal high-speed broadband three years before the UK. Up to the Dispatch Box he steams, declaring "It's smaller", before flopping back on the treasury bench with an air of Johnsonesque self-satisfaction.
Clearly, neither geography nor logic is being taught at St Paul's these days. For Morocco is twice the size of the UK and the distances that have to be covered with fibre-optic cable are the problem for geographically challenged places like Blaenrhondda and Berber hill villages alike. So the question remains, why is Morocco (446,550sq km) three years ahead of the UK (243,610) in getting high-speed broadband?
You need jewellery to open Parliament
The Queen will be back in Parliament in May for the State Opening. The first one I attended was in 2001. We trooped off to the Lords, where the hereditary peers were gathered for the last time (including Jamie Lee Curtis) in their costume drama outfits. Diamonds sparkled hither and thither. I turned to a colleague, whom I presumed to be a new Labour MP like myself and asked: "Where do you buy a tiara like that?" As if to prove his Tory credentials, the MP haughtily shot back: "You don't buy a tiara. You inherit a tiara."Reuse content