Sic transit gloria mundi

A barebones parliament stumbles along as a country crumbles


The House of Commons having been back from its summer holidays for nearly two and a half weeks, it rose on Tuesday afternoon for a three-an- a-half-week break. The official reason for this is the need for a recess for party conferences, but this can’t be all of it: the Lib Dem conference runs from this Saturday to next Tuesday. It can be a pretty wild event, but we don’t need three days to build up and another three to recover.

A sleepy air settled over the Commons on Tuesday

A more plausible explanation is that there simply isn’t very much to do. MPs are already complaining that this is a zombie parliament. Rishi Sunak is clearly pretty comfortable with the idea of missing a session of prime minister’s questions – the prime minister’s main question, if the weekend papers are to be believed, is why people aren’t more grateful to him for his many achievements.

And so a sleepy air settled over the Commons on Tuesday. With nothing much on the agenda, many MPs won’t have bothered to travel to London at all for two days of not-very-urgent business. Education Secretary Gillian Keegan was summoned to the chamber to answer questions on collapsing schools. At the start of the month this was a hot topic, with MPs crowding into the chamber to demand action. This time, there were just 18 backbenchers present, and the whole thing lasted half an hour. Perhaps Keegan was right at the start of the month, and it really was all a fuss about nothing.

She was certainly fairly blasé about the whole thing. “Thanks to the hard work of school and college leaders,” she told the chamber, most affected schools were teaching children face-to-face. This was a group of people she was last heard urging to “get off their backsides”, but there seems to have been an outbreak of diplomacy in the Department for Education. In the chamber, likewise, she was, more or less, polite. Controlled, if not actually contrite.

Parliamentary officials, and possibly this sketchwriter, struggled to keep our eyes open.

Indeed, she seemed to be arguing, it might be for the best that kids are in temporary classrooms while their roofs are falling in. “At the first school I visited,” she told MPs, “the children were all petitioning me to stay in the portacabins, because they actually preferred them to the classroom. The portacabins are very high quality.” This is not the boast she thinks it is.

The day had begun with Energy Questions, to dynamic new Energy Secretary Claire Coutinho. She is a protégé of Sunak’s and has a similar mixture of cool assurance and mild snippiness. When Labour’s Clive Lewis began by telling her that he agreed with Liz Truss about something, Coutinho raised her eyebrows as though he’d confessed to an unpleasant but legal sexual kink. When Ed Miliband asked her about the recent triumphant offshore wind auction, which secured no bidders, she gave an answer about London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone.

The real star of the show was her junior minister, Graham Stuart, who has the temperament of an aggressive terrier. The Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, had to tell him to calm down early on, but he was soon straining at the leash again. “The Labour Party,” he declared, “is the biggest enemy of Net Zero!” Not, it should be said, while quite a lot of Tory backbenchers are alive.

After lunch, we trotted over to the Business Committee to watch Kemi Badenoch answer questions. Usually this is a sure-fire hit, as Badenoch struggles not to show her contempt for those MPs she regards as intellectually beneath her, which is all of them. But this time she barely got out of second gear. Only four members of the committee had even shown up. The secretary of state sat with her laptop open in front of her, perhaps so she could answer emails during the slow bits. Behind her parliamentary officials, and possibly this sketchwriter, struggled to keep our eyes open.

Badenoch explained her job was “removing endless trade barriers”. She didn’t mention that many of them had been put in place by her own government, but perhaps this is a high-end version of paying one person to dig a hole and then paying someone else to fill it in: Keynesianism for Conservative ministers. Her goal, she said, was to be a “concierge service” for businesses. You won’t hear that kind of language under Labour. It’s hard to imagine the Shadow Cabinet have a single concierge subscription between them. Who knows what they do when they need a private helicopter at short notice.

Speaking of Labour, Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves had decided to make the most of the light workload, and take a trip to Paris. There Starmer met Emmanuel Macron, the sort of treat you get when other countries decide you look like a winner. Starmer didn’t come empty handed, giving the French President an Arsenal shirt, with its slightly unfortunate sleeve badge: “Visit Rwanda”. It’s an invitation neither man is likely to take up.

Then they sat and chatted, and we tried to work out who was hoping for a bit of whose star quality. Starmer is hardly a megawatt figure, but then Macron isn’t as popular as he once was: this month he was booed at the rugby world cup. Sic transit gloria mundi and all that. Or, as the French say, il a était le future une fois.

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