Strange Days in the Commons

02/04/2003

An eerie atmosphere in the Commons following the dramatic events of a couple of weeks ago. On the day of the vote on whether to wage war there was a sense that the Commons really mattered. For years we have been told that the Commons is an irrelevance, by–passed by governments and largely ignored by the press and the TV media. Yet on that day the fate of so many rested in the division lobbies of the Commons.

It was not only the debating chamber which was well- attended. The MembersÂ’ Tearoom adjacent to the chamber did a brisk trade all day. The tearoom is a fine House of Commons institution: it dispenses snacks and cakes and is open as the House sits. By tradition it is segregated with Labour MPs at one end and Tories at the other, the better to allow for plotting and gossip. Indeed it has been said that there is no place on earth where a rumour travels faster than in the tearoom. MPs talked openly of how many MPs would have to rebel before the Prime MinisterÂ’s position became untenable, although it was widely held that the tiny handful of far-Left Labour MPs had wildly overplayed their hand the previous week by questioning TBÂ’s future. Anxious whips offered cups of tea in return for the latest news which, naturally, was not proferred in return. It was impossible to second guess how any individual MP would vote as the issue cut across not only party lines but also friendships and history. I sat at a table with people who have been amongst my closest political friends over the years, but they were going to vote against the war and I in favour. There was no rancour, but good natured debate and occasional gallows humour. At this point an extraordinary thing happened, something which underlined just how worried the Prime Minister must be: for here, into the tearoom strode Mr Blair. This is extremely unusual. I think I am on safe ground when I say the great TB is, frankly, not one for catching up on the gossip with his backbench colleagues. A little later I went to listen to the debate in the chamber and who should be there listening intently to an obscure backbencher? None other than the Prime Minister again. Trust me on this, if he is listening to debates and chatting in the tearoom then the Commons really is beginning to matter again.

Since then the Commons has taken on a surreal quality. Of course there are daily statements on the war which last for an hour so, but the rest of the time a virtually deserted Commons chamber debates mundane measure after measure: the Northern Ireland Bill, the Criminal Justice Bill, the Anti–Social Behaviour Bill and next week the Budget. But this is as it should be, for these things matter. My thoughts are with those constituents and others who are now in the Gulf risking their lives for the very democratic values which are denied to the Iraqi people. But when they return they will deserve a better life too.

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