The ghost of real politics stalk a silent, disregarded palace

Westminster Slumbers

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I've always been enjoyably haunted by that scene in Dr Zhivago where they scramble back into the shuttered, deserted and winter-bound country house, marooned and ghostly. Once, chasing a story, I came across, without intending to, a boarding school I attended in a similar state - shuttered windows, well-remembered classrooms slimy with mould, the drive vanished under moss, dripping silence everywhere.

And now, again, this week, a third echo of loss and abandonment; though the architecture is in rather better repair. Long, empty, corridors; silent, darkened rooms; cavernous, ill-lit hallways, where once there was laughter, argument and noise. Muffled and ghostly voices from a chamber. A pervasive sense of decrepitude, defeat and memorial slumber.

None of which may be of much consequence, except that I was in the House of Commons. Wander around the Mother of Parliaments any evening and you would conclude that the place has been shut down; that it's an institutional husk, a museum. The lobbies, bars and corridors which, in the 1980s, were crammed with plotting Members, hacks and hangers-on, seem silent and mournful. Officials can be found in odd corners, murmuring about the old days, like abandoned retainers. In the Commons chamber itself a few MPs can be found too, mouthing mostly to themselves, Miss Havisham-like. A wreck of a place, I assure you.

This is, granted, an evening scene. The Commons is busier earlier in the day and shouldn't, in any case, continue the ridiculously late night sittings which were once the norm. But the depopulation of the palace by early evening is eloquent of a bigger truth, which is that our Parliament is barely surviving Tony Blair's majority of 179.

Once, in pretty recent memory, there was a Chamber, if not of Horrors, then at least of big and active beasts. There was Michael Foot, squinting and poised; Enoch Powell, grimly free of illusions and comforts; Denis Healey; Margaret Thatcher; Callaghan; Benn; Heseltine with hunger in his eye.

They were the last generation of post-war ideological politicians and the left-right divide sliced down the middle of the Commons. A real struggle was taking place about the organisation of society, which had real consequences outside. It was a global argument; and they were the British players; and it mattered. Neil Kinnock's white-faced anger about Nigel Lawson or Thatcher was unaffected. The Tory celebrations during those Budgets that ratcheted socialism away were authentically triumphal.

Not only was there a grand moral plot, there was, for much of the time, a certain degree of day-to-day uncertainty and suspense built into it - cabinet-splitting arguments, sudden resignations, ``will they survive this one?'' cliffhanger votes - all the blood and screaming of a good, old-fashioned melodrama. There were big characters, big themes and fast, racy chapters. There was, in short, a story.

Now, with the abolition of ideology, we have caring Tories and fiercely pro-business New Labourites. The line down the chamber has wavered and been partly rubbed out. The Government is inclusive. The Opposition is barely articulate, still winded, sitting on its bottom and rubbing its eyes. William Hague declares that the Conservative Party is back in the fight. But it doesn't, so far, agree.

I am not suggesting that the Commons was simply switched off on 2 May 1997. There are trends here which have been discussed for years. There is the rise of the TV studio as a more intimate and easily-controlled alternative to the Chamber - witness the Prime Minister's apology over the Ecclestone affair, which was welcome, but might have been even more so had it been made mid-week to Parliament, and not on a Sunday to John Humphrys.

There's the disappearance of gallery reporting in newspapers, which journalists tend to regard as a reaction to Parliamentary decline, and MPs see as a prime cause of it. There's the tight grip over New Labour dissent by the whips, no different in essence from whipping by previous governments, but more controlled, with radiopagers, days off and so on.

But, ultimately, Parliament seems so dull just now because of the lack of tension - that damned great majority - the lack of surprise, and the fact that the Government likes it that way. This is an administration of sleeve-rolled doers, impatient to get moving in Whitehall and less sentimental about Parliamentary tradition. Labour ministers, who spent years watching the antics in the Chamber with impotent irritation, have no time to mourn its passing now.

Yet without an active, challenging and unpredictable Parliament, any government is bound to get too easy a ride. There won't be the stomach- knot of tension in ministers waiting to be challenged; so they will become slacker or more arrogant than they would have been. Many backbenchers, failing to make a difference, will become discouraged and give up. Ill- considered bills will slip through, though admittedly they always have so slipped.

At this point in the argument there are a couple of ``government by Prime Ministerial dictatorship - threat to democracy - Lord Hailsham vindicated'' paragraphs that any adequately-trained columnist inserts pretty automatically. But I am enough of a chirpy optimist to think politics, with all its drama and tension, will reassert itself. Loyal Blairy backbenchers will become bored and unpredictable. Personality and policy clashes will create their own theatricals in due course.

More important, though, we are probably in a period of political transition, from the politics of left-right to the politics of Europe-national. Mr Hague has been given a thorough kicking, not least by this newspaper, for embracing anti-EU politics and therefore - unless monetary union quickly collapses - consigning himself to certain defeat. I'm still convinced that, with business backing, there will be a pro-EMU majority by the time it matters and the nationalist crusade is romantic.

But in a short-term way, Hague may be right, in that he will unite a considerable section of the country behind him and achieve exactly the definition that the Tories have lacked during the early phase of Blairism. He might lose the next election by less than otherwise.

And - here's the crux of it - in doing so, he will be repainting that line down the centre of the chamber, driving Tory Europeanists towards Labour and the Liberal Democrats, but tugging at the loyalties of leftish anti-federalists. A remaking of party politics, and the return of a Great Argument to Westminster is not only possible but even likely by the year 2000.

Tory sceptics are certainly right to point out that devolution and monetary union are likely to undermine the importance of Westminster further - though there is a huge job remaining for a reformed House of Commons. But it is a rich, choice and resonant irony that the place will come alive again only once the debate is joined on the policies which could silence it for good.

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