I’ve never read it, seen it or listened to it on the radio, but somehow I know that in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the answer to the ultimate question of life was the number 42, so when the two Labour tellers lined themselves up on the right of the two Tories to read out the result of the boundaries vote on Tuesday afternoon and announced 292 Tory ayes and 334 nos, there was a sense that 42 might be Labour’s magic number and that the 2015 election campaign had started in earnest.
We had defeated the Tories’ attempt to overturn the Lords, and the boundary changes will not happen until 2018.
But hidden in those numbers are some strange facts. Every single Labour MP voted. I know you’d expect that. But with the norovirus and family bereavements, it’s normally pretty difficult to get a 100 per cent turnout even in exceptional circumstances, and when the Labour government lost its vote of confidence in 1979 it was by a single vote. But even Tories are amazed at how united Labour has been since the 2010 election defeat. Previously when we lost, especially in 1931, in 1951 and in 1979, we tore ourselves apart; we invented six impossible things before breakfast; we took our hobby-horses out into the paddock and rode them for all they were worth. But not this time. God knows we’ve a long way to go, but neither ill-discipline nor self-indulgence is our besetting political sin.
Even more astounding, though, was the behaviour of the Tories. Just as they sank Lords reform last autumn without a thought for tomorrow, so on Tuesday they indulged their pent-up fury by sniping at the Lib Dems, and let the future hang for itself. It was a joy to see the self-styled bravehearts who had brandished their conservative claymores so furiously at the very idea of an elected Lords suddenly find themselves hoist by the petard-bearing unelected house, the very people they had fought so hard to defend.
Several disaffected Tories told me they hoped we would win the vote; four voted with us, and as for the newbie equalities minister, Helen Grant, pictured, she managed to vote both for and against allowing the monarch to be a Catholic on Monday and on Tuesday completely failed to turn up. It all feels so fin de régime. Yes, some Tories share a putrid hatred of David Cameron. But, even more importantly, they seem more interested in cherishing their private notions than in presenting a united front. This does not feel like a disciplined party, eager to govern because it has a vision of what it wants to do. (I hope they don’t read this. They might take note. But I suspect this particular patient is too far gone already.)
There’s only so much you can do
Incidentally, you would have to visit my advice surgery only once to understand where our eagerness to govern again comes from. It can be deeply depressing. The desperate tales of families caught in intractable legal cases, in wholly uninhabitable housing or completely unable to find work are enough to make a statue weep.
Just sometimes you can make a difference as an MP. I got a major food company in Ireland to drop its legal case against a local ice-cream manufacturer just by ringing up the chairman. I got an insurance company to drop most of its charges for an elderly couple caught ill in Spain. And the council always responds swiftly to my complaints about rubbish collection, road gritting and potholes. But last week two local solicitors came in, worried about the Government’s slashing of legal aid and changes to the law on personal injury. Thirty local jobs may go. But all I could say was, “Yes, I agree, but unfortunately we’re not the government.”
Quality, not quantity
I’d dearly love to ban MPs from claiming that they have been “inundated with letters and emails”. Not, you understand, because we don’t get lots of correspondence. We do. A cross-section of my inbox could be submitted to the British Museum as a perfect picture of modern marketing techniques. But I’ve always disliked that debating habit of claiming imaginary legions of supporters by starting a speech with either “everybody knows that”, or “my constituents have written to me in their droves”.
Take same-sex marriage. I have not had more than three communications on this from constituents (though I’ve had a constant stream of wild emails from the insane dubiously claiming to be in the name of Jesus). That is not because the people of the Rhondda are indifferent. There are supporters and opponents. But they know my view on the matter and colleagues who have sounded ambivalent have ended up with a far larger postbag. No MP should last long if they were entirely inured to public opinion in their patch, but political antennae must consist of more than counting emails.
How to get the measure of a man
A favourite tearoom pastime on the Labour side involves teasing Jack Straw about his time as Lord High Chancellor, when he seemed to rather enjoy wearing tights, buckled court shoes and elaborate gold-laced robes (£15,000 a set). In fact, he tells me that the post required several different outfits for different Chancery functions. Indeed, very early on, some tailors from Ede & Ravenscroft appeared in his office, as if by magic, with a set of togs that they had miraculously tailored for him without so much as taking a measurement.
He admits he did let the side down on one occasion, though. Having been told that the correct attire for swearing in a new bishop (yes, this does still happen) is a morning suit, he thought he had done as required, but was notified by Sir Humphrey that his grey waistcoat was hideously inappropriate. “Only for weddings and Royal Ascot, Sir,” came the rebuke, as if addressed to a terrible parvenu.