Politics.co.uk Blog

Monday, 28 June 2010

Sir George Young: Good at his job

Last Thursday lunchtime I bumped into an MP in the Commons on his way to business questions, after which the parliamentary weekend officially kicks off. He was hugely excited. "There's something about business questions - it's so unpredictable," he enthused.

This is because there's a fundamental tension in the role of the man in charge, Sir George Young. As leader of the House he can be asked about absolutely anything - and must be as adept at coming up with an answer as David Cameron is in PMQs. He also has to look after the interests of backbenchers, too, who are constantly clamouring for debates on this and that.

Sir George, who was the runner-up to John Bercow in last year's Speaker election, is doing what appears to be an excellent job. Here's a few examples to illustrate the point:

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Mr Tom Harris (Glasgow South) (Lab): I am not entirely sure about this new democracy malarkey. Although we are not allowed to say it, the Whips did a very good job in previous Parliaments of ensuring that Select Committees had a good balance, geographically and in terms of gender and experience. Under the new system, I am not sure that that will be possible. May we have a debate at some point on whether this new experiment in democracy within the House has worked? I am not sure that the Wright reforms were the right reforms.

Sir George Young: I cannot believe that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we go back to the old system whereby the Whips nominated Members to Select Committees. It is astonishing that in the House of Commons, the cockpit of democracy, an hon. Member should make such a regressive suggestion that we abandon elections and go back to nominations.

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Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): Further to the comments of my hon. Friend and best mate the Member for Cardiff South-sorry, I mean Glasgow South- [Laughter.] It is a bit further north than the Cardiff constituency.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris) obviously agrees with a predecessor of yours, Mr. Speaker. Bernard Weatherill once told me "You can't have civilisation without sewers, and you can't have Parliament without the Whips." May we have a statement, or perhaps a debate, on the cost of democracy and of some things we have lost which are valuable, including the ability of Opposition spokespeople to travel in order to carry out their duties? That has been taken away by our handing over such matters to people who know nothing about politics. Is it possible for the Leader of the House to look into the matter? I am sure that he will want to make certain that the Opposition can do their job properly, as he did when he was in opposition.

Sir George Young: The Government are very anxious for the Opposition to be able to hold us properly to account. Having been an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman myself, I recall that the Short money makes provision for travel for Opposition spokesmen. That is the source to which the hon. Gentleman should look in order to fund his important travels around the country.

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Mr Tom Watson (West Bromwich East) (Lab): If the Leader of the House granted a debate on public sector cuts, I could inform him of my plans for alternative cuts. The Foreign Office recently admitted to me that the ministerial wine cellar was worth £860,000 a year, and that it had just spent nearly £18,000 on replenishing it after the election. However, it was less candid about what was held in the collection. Does the Leader of the House think that Ministers should tell me what is in it, and should we sell it so that we are "all in it together"?

Sir George Young: I could have said that the chief secretary was not the only person who left the cupboard bare, and that the government hospitality cellar had to be replenished when we came to office; but I will not.

It says here: "The Government hospitality cellar is a carefully managed resource that is integral to the service delivered by government hospitality for all government departments. Expenditure since the election has been part of the normal buying pattern for the cellar, on which between £80,000 and £100,000 is spent per annum."

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Seating arrangements ruffle Lib Dems

About an hour before the state opening of parliament began, Tory grandee Sir Peter Tapsell was spotted tottering into the chamber of the Commons.

After a quick curious look up at the press gallery, which was packed with journalists having their official picture taken, the Father of the House wandered up to his customary seat and slid a small card into the place-holder covering his customary seat.

It was the first time I'd spotted this practice takes place - and teaches us that in the Commons, as on commuter trains, getting a seat is everything.

Unfortunately I'm hearing seating arrangements are the latest source of tensions within the fledgling Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.

In the last parliament the Lib Dems reserved exclusive use of the first two benches in their corner of the chamber.

They have sought to flip this arrangement in the new Commons - but the influx of new Tory MPs unfamiliar with this custom is causing trouble.

I'm hearing Lib Dem MPs are having to fight for their right to an independent parliamentary party.

Regular battles take place in the minutes before the Commons begins its session, as misguided new Tories put their place reservations in the Lib Dem benches.

"They're like Germans with beach towels!" one Lib Dem old-timer told me.

It feels like the latest good deal the Lib Dems have got. Their party's ministers are allowed to sit among the Tories elsewhere; but the Tories aren't allowed to intrude on the Liberal enclave.

As I write, the build-up to the next big event after the Queen's Speech - the emergency Budget - looms closer and closer. Sir Peter will be putting his card in its usual place around now. He might be witness to a bit of Lib Dem jiggery-pokery as he does so.

Monday, 21 June 2010

An ill-advised break

It's no surprise the BP chief executive was ripped apart by the White House's chief of staff for spending his first day off sailing.

"I think we can all conclude that Tony Hayward is not going to have a second career in PR consulting," Rahm Emanuel said. How right he most certainly is.

Anything else would have been acceptable. A game of chess. A quiet pub lunch. Sitting around watching the World Cup.

Not riding the majestic waves of the Solent and English Channel, enjoying the delights offered by large stretches of non-polluted water.

It was the latest in a series of gaffes by Hayward, who was accused last week of evading questions as he sat grumpily through a Capitol Hill grilling.

The fuming hostility of the congressmen questioning him was a little overwhelming for those of us who like our select committee queries to be more sedately put.

After all, the contrast with the Treasury committee's mild-mannered assaults on banking chiefs in the wake of the financial crisis couldn't have been greater.

But imagine a scenario where the glittering waters of the Channel were the ones being sludged up by an environmental disaster on the scale of that currently blighting the Gulf of Mexico.

Imagine the anti-American fervour which would be triggered if it was a US energy giant behind the hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil spewing out of a sea bed near us every day.

The truth is every drop of anger and frustration targeted at BP is justified. We shouldn't be complaining as BP attracts flak.

It was pointedly called 'British Petroleum' by one congressman, even though the company has been officially registered by its initial for the last decade.

Yet now is no time for nationalistic quibbling. BP deserves all its gets.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Sign here, please

Cheque-books out, politics fans.

Your signature - for a guide price of up to just £2,000 - could be all that's required to gain possession of a remarkably geeky collection of British history.

When one thinks of autographs the instant assumption is of a bubblegum-chewing 1960s schoolgirl doing all she can to get the signatures of her favourite popstars.

It's difficult to think of her 19th century equivalent striving to get the scribble of the Duke of Wellington or Pitt the Younger.

Nevertheless, autograph hunters have done their best to cobble together the genuine signatures of this country's great leaders.

A total of 46 British prime ministers' autographs will be going under the hammer in an auction today in Gloucestershire.

Starting with Sir Robert Walpole, Britain's first PM, it passes through most of No 10's residents.

Spencer Perceval is dead, like the vast majority of the others. But the fact he was assassinated makes his signature slightly more interesting.

Auctioneer and autograph specialist Chris Albury said:

"While Victorian autograph albums turn up fairly regularly and include cut signatures of royalty, nobility, clergy and politicians, this is still an unusually large collection of British prime minister autographs to come on the market as one lot," Dominic Winter Auctioneers' autograph specialist Chris Albury tells us.

"Some may question the attraction of collecting autographs of British prime ministers and why anyone would want signed portraits of Harold Wilson, Tony Blair or Gordon Brown."

It's almost not worth adding his closing comment: "For many others, however, it allows a fascinating connection with 300 years of British history."

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

World Cup parliament

In every office in the parliamentary lobby, there's a little poster with the World Cup fixtures. Lobby hacks have been organising the sweepstakes, and chatting about it for weeks. Every cup of coffee bought from the café down the hall results in a good five minute distraction as we peer at whatever game's on now.

But things became a little too intense yesterday when some enterprising hack found a vuvuzela – those profoundly annoying horns you hear in every World Cup match, like a swarm of flies preparing to attack. The first time we thought it was some new demonstrator come to join Brian Haw and the impossibly angry woman in Parliament Square. Then we realised it was coming from inside the building. And shortly after that we realised it was the sound of the Daily Mirror blasting through the halls of Westminster. No matter.

Personally I've found the noise has started to become invisible, but bear in mind I've sat through select committee hearings with Jacqui Smith, so I'm trained. Can you imagine a worse time for politics? With the World Cup on, no-one cares, including most political journalists. Thank heavens it didn't coincide with the election. But then – no government would be foolish enough to set the election date during a World Cup. No-one would turn up.

Friday, 4 June 2010

The calm after the storm

As always in Westminster on Friday, it's incredibly quiet. The Palace is deserted as MPs return to their constituencies for surgeries.

Spare a thought for Stephen Timms: the last time he held a session in East Ham to help out constituents one of them allegedly stabbed him. He'll be forgiven for being a little nervous today.

He's one MP who'll be extremely glad it's quiet. The truth is this little period of respite has lasted all week, not just today.

Perhaps it's the impact of the Cumbria shootings, whose barbaric enormity has wrested people's eyes away from parliament.

Perhaps it's the Bank Holiday effect: in a four-day week and with this weather, who cares about politics?

Perhaps it's just that Vince Cable's first major speech yesterday was utterly, utterly boring.

Whatever, this calm after the storm actually feels like something of an opportunity.

Now we're into the build-up to the emergency Budget it's time for the stresses of the coalition to really come to the fore.

I've drawn up a modest list of 84 policies which I think deserve a bit of looking into - precisely because of the scope they offer for tensions within the government. It's going to be busy next week!

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

A sticky wicket for Danny Alexander

Attacks on the new Liberal Democrat in the Treasury, Danny Alexander, are perfectly reasonable.

The chief secretary has no experience in the City and spent his pre-parliament career working as a press officer in the Highlands.

From the Cairngorms to the City: you don't get much further apart.

Despite this, the 38-year-old already has experience dealing with pesky civil servants.

Five years ago he appeared for the Parliament XI in their annual cricket match against the Civil Service XI.

This writer also appeared for Parliament, for reasons it's probably best not to dwell on. The phrase 'making up the numbers' seems painfully appropriate.

Still, it gave an opportunity to witness Alexander in a new situation. Then just 33, he had just been elected to parliament.

Scots are not supposed to be good at cricket, but - after an earnest conversation about whether stopping people smoking fitted in with liberal values - Alexander proved everybody wrong.

Coming in off a long run-up, the ginger hair bearing down remorselessly on the quivering bureaucrat batsmen, Alexander's bouncers and yorkers proved more than the pen-pushers could handle.

Lib Dems will be hoping Alexander can exceed expectations just as strongly in his latest brush with the civil service as he attempts to get to grips with the deficit.