When a politician is described as a “character”, it’s generally a case of using nine letters where four would do. Tuesday saw two parliamentary characters facing off.
On the front bench, there was Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has cultivated a reputation as an old-world fuddy-duddy. In his last parliamentary appearance, he effortlessly referred to listening to another MP on “the wireless”. It’s all very well, but feels a little overdone once you remind yourself that Rees-Mogg is younger than Kylie Minogue.
Behind him on the very back bench there was Sir Christopher Chope. He is less famous than Rees-Mogg, but carries his commitment to eccentricity far further. Chope is a believer in parliamentary scrutiny. More of a believer when it benefits causes and people he supports, but a believer nonetheless. It was because of Chope that we were there.
The government was in the midst of its great Owen Paterson climb-down. After a week in which they tried to pretend that their parliamentary stitch-up simply hadn’t happened, or had been misunderstood by everyone, they had accepted that they needed to reverse the vote. Though entertaining for the rest of us, this is a painful process for Conservative MPs, and they had been hoping to do it in the middle of the night with minimal fuss. Indeed, had they had their way, it would have taken less than 30 seconds. But Chope wasn’t having it. “Object!” he’d shouted on Monday evening, and so on Tuesday afternoon Rees-Mogg was forced to turn up and lead a proper debate.
He didn’t look very happy about it. Last time, he’d spoken for 40 minutes, quoting from The Merchant of Venice on the quality of mercy. This time, he read his speech quickly and in a sing-song tone, taking four minutes to complete it – and that was with two interventions.
He was having a lonely time of it, too. Sometimes Cabinet ministers will come to sit next to an embattled colleague to show their support. But the Conservative benches were empty for this debate. There were only 13 other Tory MPs in the chamber as Rees-Mogg began to speak. Labour’s Stephen Timms asked why there had been “an extraordinary failure of moral leadership” from the government. Rees-Mogg looked pained, saying the “tragedy” of Rose Paterson’s death had “coloured and clouded our judgement”.
For the rest of the hour, Rees-Mogg sat in his place, legs crossed, hands immobile
For the rest of the hour, Rees-Mogg sat in his place, legs crossed, hands immobile. It was reminiscent of the way Paterson had sat as his own conduct had been debated a couple of weeks earlier.
Thangam Debonnaire led for Labour. The first half of her speech was mocking, but the close, where she grew serious, was more effective. She leaned over the dispatch box and read out the Nolan principles for public life like a primary headteacher telling off the school after a particularly messy trip to the zoo, pausing between each one to look at Rees-Mogg: “Selflessness. Integrity. Objectivity. Accountability. Openness. Honesty. And finally leadership.” He had let Parliament down, but worse, he had let himself down.
Next to put the boot in was Theresa May. Boris Johnson destroyed her premiership, but his own behaviour as prime minister since then has flattered her reputation far more than anything she did in office. “Damage has been done to all MPs and to Parliament as a whole,” she fumed. There should be an immediate tightening of rules on outside consultancies, she said, though she didn’t mention her own lucrative speaking work, which pays amazingly well.
As the debate went on, it became clear that the opposition parties were unnecessary
As the debate went on, it became clear that the opposition parties were unnecessary: there may not have been many Conservative MPs present, but those who had turned up were spoiling for a fight with each other. Bill Cash and Mark Harper clashed over Paterson’s guilt, an exchange that ended with Harper shaking his head in despair. Alicia Kearns took on Chope about why the debate was necessary, and he replied that she hadn’t “applied her mind to the principal issue”. She looked ready to kill.
The problem was that, as Labour’s Jess Phillips pointed out, Chope was right, or at least half-right. The government’s attempt to quietly correct its Paterson error echoed the sort of trick newspapers used to pull: a libel on page one followed by a correction on page 48.
As Chope said, two weeks ago, Rees-Mogg had argued that Paterson had been the victim of a miscarriage of justice. Since then there has been no new evidence, no fresh argument. Having been briefly right, Chope quickly returned to his comfort zone of error, claiming that Paterson was the victim of “mob rule”, which is a short way of saying “the public spotted what we were up to”. As he sat down, Labour cried for more.
The motion of censure against Paterson passed without a vote. An hour later, the Prime Minister announced a further climbdown, calling for a ban on MPs working as political consultants and “prioritising outside interests over their constituents”. Johnson is another parliamentary character. His own side-project, a biography of little-known writer William Shakespeare, is unlikely to be affected. Any prosecution would have to show he’d done some work on it.
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