Deja vu has been happening rather too frequently for the home secretary’s liking in recent months.
Having had to come to the Commons to explain why Elizabeth Butler-Sloss had resigned as chair of the child abuse inquiry before it had even started, she now found herself back at the dispatch box to explain why Fiona Woolf had also chosen to fall on her sword. Finding someone who isn’t a regular guest at dinner parties with Lord Brittan is proving far trickier than Theresa May imagined. Who knew Laughing Leon was such a socialite?
“Almost four months after I announced my intention to establish a panel inquiry, it is obviously very disappointing that we do not yet have a panel chairman,” she said with misjudged understatement. Disappointing doesn’t even begin to cover it: massively incompetent is nearer the mark. The Home Office had, as she later went on to say, scoured “the whole world” for the right person to chair the inquiry and just happened to come up with someone who lived next door to Lord Brittan. Easily done.
But May was determined to make it third time lucky and assured the house that she would now be seeking the advice of both the shadow home secretary and the home affairs select committee before getting her fingers burnt again. Most of all, though, she wanted to say she was sorry to the victims of child abuse. “Let us come together,” she said, through eyes that looked rather colder than the sentiment. “I am listening.” She said that last time.
Yvette Cooper was the model of restraint; it doesn’t look good to make political capital out of child abuse, so she began by thanking May for the tone of her statement and for saying sorry. May looked up sharply at this, as if concerned that her parliamentary apology had been confused with a personal apology that might suggest she had done something wrong. The shadow home secretary then added: “It is vital the selection process doesn’t fail again” – a phrase almost directly lifted from the speech she made a couple of months ago when Butler-Sloss went awol – before suggesting that it had been ill-advised of the Home Office to redraft Woolf’s letter explaining her links to Brittan seven times.
How very dare you, May roared. “The whole purpose of the redrafts was to be as transparent as possible.” Before there was time for MPs to wonder why they were no longer able to fill in their expenses claims with such transparency, the home secretary had a final word of assurance. “I believe it will be possible to find an individual who can lead this inquiry,” she said.
But not two. David Blunkett raised the possibility of having co-chairs and May reacted as if he was mad. “We’re having enough trouble finding one, you idiot. How one earth do you think we’re going to come up with two?”
Even Blunkett could follow that logic. The stress was beginning to tell on the home secretary, though. Her replies became ever more brittle and the ums and ers more frequent.
She was also being stalked by a fly that buzzed around her head throughout the session. It eventually settled on her head and she no longer had the strength to swat it away. The shit may not have quite yet hit the fan, but even the flies sense it is not far away.
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