In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray got to relive the same day over and over again until he was note perfect. In the House of Commons, Chris Grayling’s life is travelling in the opposite direction.
Having been caught trying to sneak English votes for English laws through parliament using a change in standing orders rather than the full legislative process last Thursday, the leader of the house was forced to suffer a worse nightmare after Lib Dem Alastair Carmichael dug out a standing order of his own to trigger an emergency debate on why the house had not been allowed to have a debate on Evel.
It was a virtual rerun of the previous week, with the same characters making exactly the same points as before. Only in greater depth and at greater length. While Carmichael re-catalogued the failings of his proposals – an extensive list that ran the full spectrum from incompetence to stitchup – Punxsutawney Chris pretended he was elsewhere by examining his mobile phone for long periods. Presumably to check whether this kind of humiliation was in his job description. Leader of the house is usually given to a politician in the twilight of his career and Punxsutawney Chris isn’t the kind of bloke you’d want to settle a boundary dispute between two allotment holders, let alone one between four countries.
Eventually he was forced to admit he was indeed at least alive. Tuesday? Thursday? His eyes swivelled desperately for help. None was forthcoming, even from his own benches. “I am pleased to have a further chance...” he stuttered. “What he must understand is one of the things that wasn’t understood. It’s very simple.” So simple that Punxsutawney Chris couldn’t explain it as anything other than a series of ever-moving targets in which the budget became estimates and devolved powers became anything he said they were.
Shadow leader, Angela Eagle, was not quite sure where to begin. He had ignored the McKay Commission and there were 22 pages of amendments to standing orders bundled in a take it or leave it package. “It’s a constitutional mess,” she shrugged. “I was only trying to make things more transparent,” Punxsutawney Chris replied.
John Redwood was one of the few MPs willing to come to his rescue. He, too, got shot down. “If the honourable gentleman had been here from the start of the debate,” Eagle observed, “then he would have known that I had already answered that.” Redwood looked daggers. He’s not used to being talked to like that and it’s hardly his fault if, like Punxsutawney Chris, he is living in a time loop.
Others killed with kindness. Tory Charles Walker, chair of the Commons procedure elect committee, longed to find something reassuring to say. But couldn’t. His hands were tied, post-legislation scrutiny was far from ideal. “I’m not sure what I can do about it,” he concluded. He did, though suggest MPs would need to work much longer hours, which didn’t go down too well. Sunday trading is for the lower orders.
Punxsutawney Chris’s fate was sealed when Ed Miliband joined in. And who could blame him? After years of being everyone’s favourite whipping boy, the former Labour leader had earned his chance to kick someone else when they were down.
Long before the end, Punxsutawney Chris knew the game was up and did not even bother to stay for the result of the vote. Groundhog Day would be coming round again and he would have to be back in the Commons the following week to relive the horror, the horror. If the movie is a reliable guide, Punxsutawney Chris has only got another 10 years or so of this before he comes up with a solution to Evel. Sounds about right to me.
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