Chris Bryant: Westminster is up in arms, petulant and splenetic. What will the voters think?

A Political Life

Chris Bryant
Friday 13 July 2012 19:58

I have never known parliament to reek of acrid fuming quite as much as now. It's not just the whiff of burning rubber as the Government performs another handbrake turn. Peers are angry with MPs for meddling with their futures or dissing their contribution to the general wellbeing of the nation. Labourites are incandescent with the Liberal Democrats for masquerading all the while as sanctimonious lefties and succumbing to the first aroma of chauffeur-driven leather.

Tories, meanwhile, are the angriest of the lot. Some lost the place that was rightfully theirs at the top (or nearly top) table when the Lib Dems waltzed in and stole their Prime Minister. Others snipe at what they see as completely un-conservative policies – wind farms, human rights, gays, Lords reform. They fear the PM might have actually believed all that guff about "detoxifying the brand". The new-intake Tories, many of whom are exceptionally bright (but, so their elders point out, not yet weathered by the storms of pre-Leveson political life), have, in the words of one of them, "gone native" in the search for Have I Got News for You fame. Not for them the hard graft of party discipline.

The upshot is a permanent state of disdainful, venomous, beat your heart out spleneticism. You could see it most obviously in the Libor debate, where the response of the two principals was even less important than the bared-teeth ranting from the backbenches. Yes, Osborne had poisoned the well the day before. But ever since the botched budget the pall of acrid smoke has hung over the Commons like an old-fashioned pea-souper. So when Maria Miller stood up on Tuesday, all granite face and Olay demeanour, to patronise us with a statement about closing 27 Remploy factories, her backbenchers knew what to do – shout us down. And of course we gave as good as we got. Indeed I was furious with her that she couldn't even tell me what is to happen to my e-cycling Remploy factory in Porth. But even the two days of debate over Lords reform were howl-fests.

There are dangers in all of this. Labour can look menacing in its anger, the Lib Dems pious beyond belief. And the Tories, in fighting the yellow peril, paint themselves in a blue so deep they appeal only to their core vote. Even more dangerous is the view the voters take of a parliament fit to burst with petulance. So, I say to myself (above all), let's all calm down.

Axe free parking at your peril

Contrary to rumour, change is pretty constant in the Valleys. On my way home on Wednesday evening I popped, guiltily, into the new Sainsbury's (we've never had one before) on the site of the old Brown Lenox factory. Depressingly, it could have been in any town in any part of Britain. And yesterday I was in the Co-op in Tonypandy, which is about to close. The staff are understandably worried, but one told me their customers are even more worried about the car park closing as it has always been unpatrolled. Every politico knows: don't mess with people's right to park.

Who knew we'd still need mechanics?

Change is not always progress. On Thursday I opened the gleaming new car mechanics training facility at Ferndale Comprehensive School (with a vast pair of garden shears), which will enable youngsters to take the IMI-accredited course that immediately puts them at the front of the queue for work. Great, said I, skills are as important as knowledge. Chatting to one of the teachers, though, I learnt that a similar facility was opened 40 years ago and closed on the advice of some government department that didn't think we would need car mechanics in the future.

Power and passion of Rhondda's toffs

Even tea is tribal in the Commons, which is why I rarely travel down the Tory end of the Members' tearoom, but a Welsh Tory, Robert Buckland, had alerted me to the fact that they now have a portrait of Viscount Rhondda staring down at them. David Alfred Thomas, born 1856, looks avuncular in oils, but in real life he was the aggressively entrepreneurial owner of the Cambrian colliery at Penygraig, where the strike of 1910 led to the famous Tonypandy riots. "DA" managed nevertheless to get elected for Merthyr Tydfil from 1888 to 1910, and was briefly Minister of Food in the First World War.

The far more interesting member of the family, though, was his daughter, who was allowed to inherit the viscountcy in her own right on her father's death. Margaret proved to be a live wire, spending five days on a hunger strike while in prison for trying to blow up a postbox in 1908, attacking Asquith's car during the 1910 election, divorcing her husband so as to live with another suffragette, Helen Archdale, reforming the Women's RAF and founding her own magazine. In 1922 she very nearly persuaded the House of Lords to allow her to take her seat as Viscountess Rhondda, but died just two months before the first women life peers were admitted in 1958.

In 1915 both father and daughter were on the Lusitania when it was torpedoed and sank. Tradition goes that when a Welsh miner was told "DA" was on board he replied, "I'll wait till tomorrow. He always comes out on top, and I promise you this: he will come to the top of the water again with a big fish in each of his hands." Last year there was a brief showing of a portrait of Margaret in the House of Lords, but with the arrival of "DA" in the tearoom it seems he is still on top.

Twitter: @ChrisBryantMP

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments