Resist the eruption of tears as best you may, but from Parliament comes news to reactivate the most dormant of lachrymals. The Palace of Westminster is falling apart, so John Bercow claims and, for the life of him, Mr Speaker doesn’t know what will befall it unless the public purse wedges up for a refurb.
This decay, which cynics may regard as the cutest palace-related metaphor for institutional failure since the Windsor Castle fire lit up Her Maj’s annus horribilis in 1992, has various symptoms. The building floods, its stonework is crumbling, and in an endearingly nostalgic touch, it even retains some asbestos (though if there has been a single case of mesothelioma, it escaped me).
Thankfully, Bercow has a solution. A repair cost of £3bn is “a realistic scenario… if probably on the cautious side”, he told the Hansard Society, though “we cannot possibly be held to a figure at this stage”. Fair enough, Bercs, old sausage. We all know the form with builders’ estimates. They tell you it won’t come to a penny over three billion, God’s honest, guv’nor, and no mistake – and two years later you get a bill for £2.7 trillion.
Tugging the heart strings to the verge of myocardial infarction, the lovably bumptious Bercow raises the monstrous prospect that before too long, without this modest investment, our parliamentarians will have to vacate their present home. “It would be a huge pity if… we had to abandon this site and look elsewhere in order to serve the public interest properly”, he declared with the lack of pomposity so familiar from his tenure as matron to the Commons. “Yet I will tell you in all candour that unless management of the very highest quality and a not inconsequential sum of public money are deployed on this estate over the next 10 years, that will be the outcome.”
My reaction to this apocalyptic warning was an ague so violent that the fingers shook too much to allow me to type. With hindsight, this was a blessing. Had I written this piece several hours ago, I would have argued passionately for a 5 per cent hike in VAT, hypothecated for the Muthah of Parliaments Restoration Fund.
In the time it took the temazepam to quell the shaking, however, I had a chance to think again. Would it really be such a terrible thing if Parliament had to move? Might it be the salvation of a degraded and mistrusted institution, in fact, to leave that neo-Gothic monstrosity by the Thames for a less engaging part of England than London, SW1?
In 1790, when Congress needed a new US capital, it went for a swampy, mosquito-infested stretch of land by the river Potomac. There were various political and geographical reasons why it picked Washington DC. But one, some scholars believe, is that the area was inhospitable enough to force representatives to spend as little time there as possible, and as much in their home states among the people who elected them, thereby preventing Washington becoming a fearsome citadel of centralised power. Although this noble idea eventually died a death, like so many others conceived in America at the time, it seems a useful precedent. Since we have no malarial swamps available, and lack the patience to wait for climate change to plug that regrettable gap, the criteria for selecting Parliament’s new home should include the following. 1) No Waitrose, Michelin-starred restaurant, independent day school or branch of John Lewis within a 15-mile radius. 2) Annual rainfall must be a minimum of double that in London. 3) Cost of a three-bedroom house less than £150,000 (which will help resolve the Rifkind conundrum of how an MP can make do on £67,000 per annum). 4) Crime rates, especially for violence and burglary, staggeringly high. 5) Fatty “Nicholas” Soames would projectile vomit his lunchtime brace of grouse at the thought of visiting for an hour, let alone living there.
Those climatic imperatives mean that the venue would have to be north of the Midlands. A colleague reports that on a recent trip to Manchester, he saw signs reading “Homes bought for cash” a mere two miles from the thriving centre. However, Manchester is far too attractive a city to be considered. The same goes for Liverpool, with its gorgeous Georgian squares. Anyone tempted by the inner perimeter of Sellafield is reminded that the nuclear plant seems relatively safe at the minute, and lies in an area of outstanding natural beauty. Since people have a curious tendency to take umbrage when smartarse metropolitan ponces diss their home towns, I will not name any specific candidates. But you will find contenders on various lists, such as Crap Towns, of the worst places to live in England.
Wherever was chosen by way of referendum, the advantages would be huge. In parts of the North-east, you could build an asbestos-free new Parliament for a fraction of the £3bn Mr Speaker deems sufficient to raise the old one to his impeccable standards. The relocation would go a long way towards assuaging areas of nagging national angst – the realisation that England has become two countries (London and Everywhere Else) with little in common, and the sense that a technocratic generation of MPs needs to reconnect with the electorate by exposure to what is technically known as “real life”.
It would also end the fetching practice of peers nipping into the Lords for 97 seconds to qualify for their £300 daily attendance allowance. It would guarantee the regeneration of one area of extreme urban deprivation, and radiate greatly increased investment out to others.
In contrast to the Bercow Masterplan, this development need cost Johnny and Joanna Taxpayer nothing. Converting the emptied Palace of Westminster into hundreds of flats at £1.5m a pop would raise more than enough for the new one, and help ease London’s housing crisis.
As for the splendiferous Speaker’s House, this would be dismantled stone by crumbling stone, and reassembled a relaxing three-hour train journey from Euston or King’s Cross. Whether Bercow would care to join it in pursuit of “serving the public interest properly”, only he can know. But the hunch is that, after exhaustive top-level negotiations with Sally, his publicity-shy missus, he would say a reluctant “Auf Wiedersehen, pet” to his stellar career in the Speaker’s booster chair.
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