Parliament metaphorically falls to bits

Image of Matthew Engel

On the day of the state opening, parliament observes more immutable traditions in four hours than the Catholic Church manages in an entire year. And one of the customs is for a senior and respected MP (this time Labour’s Tom Clarke) to make a light-hearted address in which he commends Her Majesty’s gracious speech to the House.

Before that, however, there was Michael Martin, Mr Speaker, who is not much respected, and turned out not to be that gracious either. Obliged to explain the decision to invite the police to make themselves at home in Damian Green’s office, he responded in the way people generally do in this place when in trouble.

Puce in the face, he wriggled like crazy, blamed his subordinates and offered to set up a committee, which will ruminate at length and report when everyone’s forgotten the whole business.

Green-gate looks like being one of the affairs – common enough in British politics – from which no one will emerge with any credit: not Green, not Mr Plod, who well and truly lived up to his name, not the obfuscating home secretary, not the prime minister, not the opposition and certainly not the Speaker.

The Commons spends its time discussing how wretchedly parliament conducts its business. No one seems to have noticed that the building in which it operates is metaphorically falling to bits. The question of when, how, whether and why the police might enter the Palace of Westminster is fundamental to the workings of democracy. No one had the foggiest idea how to respond.

That included an array of ex-home secretaries including Michael Howard, who created the modern lock-’em-all-up template for modern British justice and now put himself forward as some kind of revolutionary. It was an “outrage”, he cried. “Deplorable.”

And his successor as party leader, David Cameron, made the mistake of giving way to an intervention from the Labour constitutionalist Tony Wright, the MP for Cannock Chase. “Is he really telling the House that as prime minister he’d be perfectly relaxed about a civil servant entering into an arrangement with an opposition spokesman on a continuing basis in breach of the civil service code?”

There is, as Eric Morecambe used to say, no answer to that. And the Cameron sidestep was unusually lumbering: “Let me tell him what I’m not relaxed about . . . ”

The Queen had long since put her feet up, which was lucky for her. This was her 57th state opening. The parliament website is showing a newsreel of her doing the same thing in 1958, when she was looking forward to visiting Ghana and Canada. This time there was nothing on her agenda – there must be an expenses clampdown.

The government did not offer much either, though it promised what sounded like Labour’s 26th and 27th Criminal Justice Acts since 1997 and its eighth Immigration Act. These events are as traditional as the sword of state and the cap of maintenance. It was hard to know who would have been more bored: the Downing Street official writing the speech or the Queen reading it. She handed it back as though it were a dead fish.

Later, the Commons gave a formal first reading to the outlawries bill, as it always does. This tradition dates back to 1588. This bill has no content and no obvious purpose. Sets the tone for the year then.

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