A desultory few MPs had gathered to doze their way through the après déjeuner debate on the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority – the body inflicted on them to control how they behave. They really hadn’t expected to find themselves making history.
Several months ago, confused and depressed MPs had passed The Parliamentary Standards Act 2009, which contained a provision for the Speaker, John Bercow, to select a Chairman, and four members, one of whom must have held high judicial office, one must be a qualified auditor and one must be a former Member of the House of Commons, to sit in judgement on their shenanigans. They didn’t really understand it all, but if it made their constituents stop asking questions about moats and duck houses, then all well and good.
One of the names Bercow had selected was that of Jacquie Ballard, one time, short time, Lib-Dem MP for Taunton. Rather more to the point, a long time campaigner against fox hunting who eventually became the much derided head of that other notable anti-fox hunting establishment, the RSPCA. It is rumoured that her stance cost her the 2001 election. Not before she had stood against Charles Kennedy in the 1999 Lib-Dem election. A lot of baggage to be carrying for a lady who was only an MP for 4 years.
The Pro-foxhunting MPs, Conservatives Sir Nicholas Winterton and Christopher Chope, were outraged that their arch enemy should be sitting in judgement on their expenses, they moved an amendment to remove Ms Ballard and replace her with the more experienced Elizabeth Peacock. The new speaker accepted the amendment.
A few people started to wake up from their claret fuelled slumber at this point and staggered to their feet to raise points of order. How could you have an amendment to deselect an MP on a motion that they had no right to select who sat on the committee?
The Deputy Speaker was in a huddle with his clerks, alternately ruling ‘out of order’ the ‘points of order’ that were firing like cannon balls round the chamber. He finally emerged with the answer that since he was the Speaker, anything that he ruled ‘in order’ was ‘in order’! Even though it might have the effect of ruling ‘out of order’ anything that he had previously ruled ‘in order’.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con):
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If it is not possible for us to have a vote, why are we able to have a debate?
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. It is possible to have a vote, because Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment.
You’re confused? You should have seen the half dozen MPs! Eventually the Lib-Dem, David Heath MP rose to his feet clutching a copy of the House of Commons bible, Erskine & May, and fired an Exocet into the befuddled brains of the legal clerks desperately trying to keep pace with their advice to the Speakers Chair.
He moved that “on a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I beg to move, That the Question be not now put. That is the substantive motion before us.”
Mr. Heath: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I refer to “Erskine May”, page 341. This is an accepted parliamentary procedure. It applies to the Question currently before the House, not the Question that is to be moved at a later stage. It is that the Question be not now put. I ask you to rule whether that matter should not now be divided upon.
A vote? On what? On not asking the question which had not been put on the question that is not before the house that cannot be put before the house on whether a vote could be held on it……remember you are trying to follow this in the cold light of day – not after an excellent bottle of tax-payer subsidised Claret.
Anne Widdecombe appeared to be the only clear headed MP:
Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con):We are witnessing is a very sad exhibition of very unworthy tactics. Unfortunately, all this will do is to compound the reputation that we already have of being in a muddle, and of being untrustworthy in how we handle this wider issue. […]If we vote that this be not now put, the ridicule that we will receive in tomorrow’s newspapers will speak for itself.
The Speaker looked stunned. The clerks looked utterly miserable. MPs, summoned by pager, started to flood into the chamber desperately searching for abandoned copies of the Motion paper before they were required to vote on this historically unique and brain twisting amendment. They voted against it 194 to 41. I don’t think any of them understood why or how, they just followed their whips.
Where had they all been? Or perhaps I should say, ‘hadn’t been’ …… as you will see. Searching for a different kind of ‘Motion Paper’. That’s where.
In a twist to the tale worthy of John Le Carre, MPs have been suffering the vengeance of the KGB. Nothing to do with the recent Dispatches programme on the Russian influence on the Houses of Parliament, a different KGB. This KGB was the province of ‘Kevin and Gina Brown’, proprietors of the cleaning company whose employees had recently threatened to go on strike from their duties of cleaning the House of Commons if they didn’t get their promised pay rise.
“And you don’t want to see what I have to clean up in the toilets. Now we’re thinking of striking to get some action.”
We would girls! We have seen the signs the draconian KGB have been forced to put up in the old ladies powder room.
Across the Atlantic, the venerable Forbes.com, as read by business and political leaders around the world, has been reporting on the vengeance of the KGB minions. It seems that the lady cleaners have, ahem, neglected to put in a fresh order for the essential toilet paper required for the Honourable Members ‘other’ motions.
Yes, folks, they were all out hunting for the elusive KGB bog rolls.
You couldn’t make it up.