It’s been muggy this week in Westminster. Hot, humid, airless. At the best of times, the Thames gives Parliament a clammy air, and whatever light breeze there may be only serves to carry the fetid stench of waste barges steaming down the river. And the Victorian ventilation system has long been silted up with the paraphernalia of modern office life – high-voltage cables, miles of telephone wires, generations of IT routing. But this week, even in the chamber of the Commons, which is slightly air-conditioned, you only had to pace through the lobbies a couple of times to get up a slow gleaming sweat. What we need is a good old thunderstorm, everybody said.
We manufactured one, of course. At Prime Minister’s Questions, Ed Miliband and David Cameron slugged it out over the regulation of banks. We ranted at one another in the time-honoured way – and there was genuine outrage that bankers’ bonuses went up 65 per cent this April, thanks to bankers shuffling monies between financial years to take advantage of George Osborne’s cut in the top rate of tax. But I was struck during Cameron’s statement on the G8 by how listless Parliament felt.
Why? Primarily because the Government has no wind in its sails. Its ministers are happy being ministers. But in all honesty they are waiting for something to come along. The ship of state is sitting in a low pressure area somewhere around the equator. The wind has dropped to nil, and they are stuck in the doldrums. Yes, there’s plenty of activity on deck. There’s even a scuffle or two, but only occasional squalls threaten to get the ship moving again. I’d be surprised if we vote more than twice next week.
There’s a bigger point, too. Five years is too long for a fixed-term parliament. The average length of a parliament since 1832 has been three years and eight months, and by this stage parties would normally be gearing up for an election and the electorate would be listening with at least half an ear. I just wish we could put this Parliament out of its lingering Godot-esque misery.
Interns we must pay
On Tuesday, the indefatigable Hazel Blears led a debate on her new Speaker’s intern programme. The key point is these are paid. I have always deplored the idea of people working for MPs for free as it just gives a leg-up to the wealthy. The gene pool from which the top rank of politics is selected is already small enough, so I have always advertised every vacancy in my office and I launched two living wage apprenticeships this year. I no longer take US university interns either, as the last one believed she was a fighter pilot in Iraq and collapsed on a tour of Downing Street after Tony Blair’s heart flutter. Everyone thought the ambulance was for Tony.
So Russia’s a paradise, right?
On Wednesday the Lord Speaker, Baroness D’Souza, hosted Valentina Matviyenko, who as chairman of the Federation Council is the most senior woman in Russian politics. This is not a woman to mess with. Her capacity for reinvention of the facts so took away our breath that we barely bothered to tackle her on Russian human-rights abuses. In response to a question about mass political corruption and criminal chicanery in Russia, she merely replied: “Well, I hear you have had some corruption in Britain.”
Even the smarter cookies crumbled. Geoffrey Howe burbled about his delight at seeing a woman in a position of seniority and about Gorbachev’s admiration for Mrs Thatcher. Mrs Matviyenko replied she was delighted to meet another big supporter of Mrs Thatcher. I hated to point out that Geoffrey had wielded the knife. As she left, she launched a gibe at me. “You should visit Russia to see what is going on, so you get rid of your stupid prejudices.” Yes, Mrs Matviyenko, I would, except that your government has been preventing a UK parliamentary visit ever since I became chair of the All-Party Russia Group.
The new voices of Turkey
Jared and I were in Istanbul last weekend as a German friend had chosen it over Tel Aviv for his 50th birthday, because everyone thought it would be safer. Sadly, many cried off because of the events of Taksim Square, which was near our hotel. It’s difficult to judge political events from the outside (especially when our cab was behind 60 police officers and a water cannon), but every Turk we met impressed on us that Erdogan has to listen to the young, militantly secular, Westernised minority in Turkey. The old ways wouldn’t do any more.
Tapsell the treasure
I’ve always been sceptical about political knighthoods and other baubles, but it was a delight to see Edward Leigh (who, despite his right-wing views, does have a sense of mischief about him) thank the Prime Minister for his new knighthood with more unction than all the olive-oil presses in Andalucia. He tells me he will return to scabrous form next week.
The grandest of all the belted knights, though, is the Father of the House, Sir Peter Tapsell, who has been around so long (57 years as an MP) that he has been enbaubled twice, with a knighthood in 1985 and membership of the Privy Council in 2011.
I can never quite tell whether he gets the joke. His demeanour is so orotund that we cannot help laugh, especially when, as this week, he refers to first visiting Syria 64 years ago. But perhaps the most surprising thing of all is that when at Oxford he was in the Labour Club – with Gerald Kaufman and Rupert Murdoch.