When even the crusty Little Englander Peter Bone suggests that the government ought to be taking parliament a little more seriously, you might have thought ministers would care to pay some attention. But Andrea Leadsom, the barely competent leader of the house, was having nothing of it. As far as she was concerned the government was already taking parliament much too seriously as it was.
Business questions had begun with the shadow leader Valerie Vaz describing the government’s performance over the past week as “jaw-dropping”. First by granting itself a whole load of executive powers in the EU withdrawal bill; then by stacking the standing committees with its own members so it could control the progress of the bill through parliament; and finally by ordering its MPs to abstain in the opposition day debates on NHS pay and student fees. Leadsom merely shrugged.
The SNP’s Pete Wishart went further by calling the government a “dysfunctional tinpot dictatorship”. Leadsom appeared to be quite pleased by this. She hadn’t realised her party had even that level of credibility and gravitas. If it is sometimes hard to remember that Leadsom was once a frontrunner for the leadership of the Tory party, it is harder still to believe that she still has serious designs on the top job when the prime minister goes. Her grasp on reality is tangential at best.
“The government takes the opposition day debates incredibly seriously,” she said. So seriously that it had even sent out a few MPs to speak in them. Though not to vote in them. Expecting its MPs to vote in a debate it knew it was going to lose would have been the height of frivolity.
It had been incumbent on her party to rise above such pettiness. By being even more petty. Just because the government didn’t have a majority in the house, it didn’t mean that the opposition parties should be allowed to exploit that weakness. The only worthwhile democracy was one where the government was able to do as it pleased. Leadsom seemed unaware that the logical conclusion of her argument was that voting on anything was a bit of a waste of time. Far better not to show up and pretend you don’t care than risk the embarrassment of losing.
Leadsom’s insistence that the government took the democratic process seriously hadn’t been wholly born out by its conduct in the urgent question on police pay that had preceded business questions. Rather than sending out the policing minister, Nick Hurd, to fend off the incoming flak, it chose to put up Sarah Newton, the most junior minister in the Home Office. Newton’s specialist subject is hopelessness: she would be out of her depth on a children’s TV programme and is one of the few people who make Leadsom look like an intellectual colossus.
Labour’s Louise Haigh tried to make things as simple as possible for her. Why hadn’t the government accepted the recommendations of the pay review board? Why did it expect police officers to accept what amounted to another pay cut? The Police Federation had said that the prime minister’s claims that police officers had received a 32% pay increase were rubbish: who was lying, the police or the prime minister? And could she explain how, if the pay rises were coming out of existing budgets, she could guarantee police numbers wouldn’t be cut?
“I am grateful for the opportunity to lay down some facts before the house,” said Newton. The house waited expectantly. And waited. Only Newton didn’t appear to have any facts to offer. Just a few sweet nothings about crime falling and the police being thrilled about everything.
Worried that Labour was in danger of looking like the party that was standing up for the police, Conservatives Andrew Selous and Philip Davies – ever so gently – took the minister to task for her general levels of uselessness. Newton waved her hands about frantically to express her outrage through interpretive dance. “Everyone in the Home Office wakes up every morning and thinks: ‘What can I do to keep my country safe?’” she wailed.
This was news to everyone in the house. And to everyone in the Home Office. They were all under the impression that everyone in government woke up every morning and thought: “What can I do today to keep us in power for another day?”
This article was written by John Crace, for theguardian.com on Thursday 14th September 2017 16.12 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010