April 7, 2010 8:17 pm

Knight’s sad tale amid nasty finale

Before considering the dismal exchanges between the main party leaders in the House of Commons on Wednesday, let us deal with the even sadder story of Sir Patrick Cormack.

Sir Patrick is the Conservative MP for South Staffordshire and has been since the time of Simon de Montfort (well, Ted Heath anyway). He is retiring, like at least 145 others plus an unknown number who will be involuntarily retired on May 6. This was their final prime minister’s questions.

Sir Patrick was anxious to mark the occasion. At every opportunity he followed the ancient ritual of standing up to catch the Speaker’s eye. Up he stood, down he sat as Speaker Bercow turned to someone else.

Up, down, up, down ... 20 times over at least. And since Sir Patrick is not as svelte as he once was, this was not an easy operation. He began to get a little impatient: he stole a quick glimpse at his watch, he pursed his lips, drummed his fingers, fiddled with his tie. No call came.

Perhaps the Speaker suspected he was going to launch into an elegiac tour d’horizon of his memories of Pride’s Purge and the accession of William IV. What if all 146 had wanted a go? But Sir Patrick could not possibly have been worse than Gordon Brown and David Cameron, whose farewell-for-now Commons shout at each other represented everything voters hate about politicians: it was nasty, witless, mendacious.

Mr Cameron arrived armed with the bludgeon rather than the rapier. Mr Brown machine-gunned statistics back at him. The whole thing could be shown unedited as an election broadcast on behalf of the Abstention party.

On the stroke of 12.30, Sir Patrick slumped back into his seat one last time and then left, along with almost everyone else. There followed a 10-minute rule motion proposed by a young Labour MP called Jamie Reed. It sounded like serious stuff, about nuclear reprocessing, read out in an undergraduate monotone. About a dozen MPs remained on the green benches and almost all were using them as park benches: three Lib Dems had a jolly chat; others spread out their papers or checked their BlackBerries.

It was mildly surprising no one listened to their iPod or lit up. The press gallery had cleared, though I expect the Hansard report will be picked up by the Cumberland News, which was the main object of Mr Reed’s exercise, since his constituency includes the Sellafield nuclear plant.

One way or another, one might have left the Manure Parliament wondering why on earth we were bothering to elect another. But on Tuesday afternoon I saw something.

MPs from Jeremy Corbyn on the far left to Bill Cash on the far right were berating Chris Bryant, a junior Foreign Office minister, over the decision to declare a maritime protection area round the Indian Ocean Chagos Islands. The government had not bothered to consult the Chagossians, exiled 40 years ago so the Americans could build a military base, and hoping to be given the right of return soon by the European Court of Human Rights.

Mr Bryant was defending a more than normally repulsive departmental brief. This said the government did not consult the islanders because it had already made up its mind, and that the government would win the court case anyway.

But half a dozen MPs, Mr Corbyn in particular, gave him well-deserved hell, and he writhed. There is a point to the House of Commons: holding the government to account. Perhaps the next parliament will remember that more often.

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