Artillery Row Portcullis Sketch

Panto in parliament

Michael Gove takes us on a regional tour

“I think we can all be proud of Portsmouth city centre,” Michael Gove told Parliament, daring someone to disagree. It was Levelling Up Questions in the House of Commons, a chance for MPs to probe the government’s efforts to work out what it was that Boris Johnson promised at the last election, and then explain why people can’t have it. 

In practice, the session features MPs talking about how great their constituency is, and then asking for money or other bungs to make it even greater. Gove responds to these requests in a tone so arch that his answers feel as though they’ve gone all the way through sarcasm and come out on the other side. He accompanies these with a variety of hand gestures. Sometimes his palm is vertical and moving from right to left, as though he’s passing the request along a production line to a more junior minister. Sometimes we get a karate chop, to indicate a Firm Rhetorical Point. And sometimes, when he’s agreeing with an opposition MP, he pinches his fingers together and moves them forward across the despatch box, as though handing over an imaginary bag of gold. The disconcerting impression is that Gove is an actor giving a slightly hammy performance of Michael Gove, Thane of Surrey Heath.

“We are advancing on all fronts,” he had told us, in answer to a question about how levelling up was going. You don’t believe it, and you don’t believe he believes it, but he can summon fake enthusiasm at a moment’s notice. When his time in government is finally over, he will make a fine Widow Twankey, gamely rousing half-empty houses at the Blackpool Grand all the way to the end of the season.

Cast in the role of Buttons was Michael Fabricant, a Tory MP apparently so enthusiastic about the prospect of a future on the stage that he seems to have already secured comedy headgear. Could he have a leisure centre for his Lichfield constituency, he pleaded? Nothing, Gove replied, was too much to ask for “Lich Vegas.” In the cheap seats, we sighed with pleasure. 

On we trotted in our tour of the country

On we trotted in our tour of the country. Jonathan Gullis revealed that Downing Street had recently hosted a “Stoke-on-Trent summit”. Such things, Gove replied were important for “ensuring that people who voted Conservative at the last general election recognise that they made the right decision.” Labour’s Lisa Nandy wished him “good luck with that”. 

Looking at the empty chamber, it was hard to argue that this was the focus of government attention. Later there would be a debate on Ukraine, in which Boris Johnson – statesmanlike arse-scratch still very much in evidence – and then Liz Truss demanded the government send fighter jets to Ukraine, something that it would be churlish to note neither of them did when they were in office.

In an effort to generate political excitement, ministers are negotiating with the European Union over the Irish Border. But Brexit rows have become like Marvel films: in the last decade each new one was an event. Now they feel like a tedious duty. Would you less rather try to understand the plot of Ant Men VIII: Ant Manner or get your head around whatever it is that the government is trying this time to pretend isn’t an Irish Sea Border?

When Gove had finished, we continued our regional tour with an Urgent Question titled “Knowsley Incident”, which sounded like a 1970s drama on BBC2. The riot outside a Merseyside hotel housing asylum seekers was, everyone agreed, a Bad Thing. Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick assured us that there was never an excuse for violence. Sir George Howarth, the local MP, assured us that the people of Knowsley “are not bigoted, racist or unwelcoming”. The problem, he said, was “far-right groups from outside of Knowsley”. 

But from where? MP after MP rose to tell us how much their constituents loved asylum-seekers. I started to long for someone to have the guts to stand up and explain that their constituents were narrow-minded bigots who loathed people from the next town, let alone foreigners. Jonathan Gullis came closest, demanding that Stoke-on-Trent be “the first place in the country to have its hotels emptied” of asylum seekers. Perhaps the government can buy him off with another summit.

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