Imagine you were the first person to actually observe dark matter. I’m guessing here, but I’d reckon the temptation to make a bit of a song and dance about it would be quite high.
Even the most reclusive of scientists would allow a press conference to greet the publication of the data before graciously acknowledging receipt of several Nobel prizes.
Chris Grayling is cut from different cloth. The West Lothian question is politics’ dark matter: a three-pipe problem so intractable since it was first identified in 1977 that its solution had consistently escaped the country’s finest constitutional brains. Until now, when the leader of the house took the somewhat unusual step of announcing his breakthrough in a rushed statement to a three-quarters empty house on the quietest day of the week when most of the Labour frontbench were away in Harrogate at a leadership hustings.
Much to Grayling’s obvious chagrin, the few MPs – predominantly the SNP contingent – who were in the Commons to witness this moment of history, were by and large sceptical of his motives. Rather than recognising the leader’s natural predisposition towards intellectual self-effacement, they suspected his plan to slip English votes for English laws through the Commons in just two weeks on standing orders – rather than subject it to the full scrutiny of legislation – was actually a piece of grubby wheeler-dealering and that the West Lothian question might not have been examined quite as rigorously as claimed. A political breakthrough that wasn’t to be Commons-reviewed. Let alone peer-reviewed.
“It is reckless and an outrage,” said Angela Eagle. “He appears to have gone out of his way to ignore the advice of the McKay Commission. Why did he not have a proper consultation with cross-party agreement on such an important constitutional matter?”
It was as well the shadow leader had been handed an advance copy of Grayling’s statement, because there was no way she would have been able to deduce any of this from his dispatch box statement, which was drowned out in shouts and jeers from the moment he stood up.
Even his own backbencher and chair of the Commons procedure select committee, Charles Walker, was less than impressed. Walker is an honourable man who is finding it increasingly hard to reconcile his party loyalty with his integrity.
“The procedure committee will do a quick and dirty technical review of the changes in the time that remains before recess,” he said, more in sadness than anger, though the word dirty was spat out with extra emphasis. “But it will take time for the procedural implications of the changes to standing orders to become apparent. I suspect we will need to revisit this issue at some stage within the next 12 to 18 months.”
Grayling did his best to reassure him, promising there would be an iPad demonstration of the new double majority voting system in the next hour or so. Walker looked unreassured. As was Gerald Kaufman, who unexpectedly announced: “The title of the statement sounds racist.” Even for the father of the house, this was pushing it a bit; if Kaufman were to get his way, just saying the word English would become a hate crime.
Thereafter the floor was left to a procession of Scottish MPs, distraught at their betrayal. “You are creating two tiers of MPs,” sobbed Lib Dem Alastair Carmichael, through a veil of his own tears. “This is a matter of eternal shame,” said the SNP’s Pete Wishart. “All this is going to do is make the whole movement towards independence even more irresistible.”
For the first time all day, a flicker of a smile crossed Grayling’s face. “Yes,” he cheered inwardly. “We’ll never have another Tory MP north of the border, so sod the Scots.”
Then he remembered he was supposed to be playing the misunderstood genius for whom martyrdom was its own reward.
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