The reactionaries are wrong on Parliament’s R&R
Ignore the Restoration and Renewal gloom merchants. If we get this right, the world will applaud, writes Tony Grew
The birth of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s first child is rightly a cause for celebration, although perhaps less so for Ian Blackford, who mixed them up with the decidedly lower profile Wessexes at last week’s PMQs. The arrival of Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor was a welcome if too-short respite from the endless wrangling over Brexit, and a sign of hope and renewal for our country. For some, restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster is an unwelcome, almost impertinent, interruption in their way of life and must therefore be resisted. However, those people are as wrong as they are reactionary. The publication of the plans for the Northern Estate was another sign of hope and renewal, and for those of us committed to the rescue and restoration of our country’s finest built icon it was exciting too.
Congratulations to all those involved, for thinking big, for rising to the scale of the project and for endeavouring to keep the whole Commons family together while the Palace undergoes its much-needed refurbishment. The plans for the new ‘temporary’ chamber and the new building to house MPs and their staff have been well-received by most Westminster villagers. Its vision of the future bodes well for the whole R&R project.
Parliamentarians have been slow enough getting here. David Cameron was mid-coalition when the Restoration and Renewal Programme was established seven years ago to examine options. It took another four years before a committee concluded that the “lowest risk, most cost-effective and quickest option to undertake the essential works would be for all Members and staff to move out of the Palace temporarily in one single phase while works take place”. There were noises off, there was an election, there was endless foot dragging. The Commons narrowly voted to support the plan more than a year ago.
In that time, the Palace continued deteriorating faster than it could be repaired. After all that talk, finally we have a plan of action. Let’s not kid ourselves it will be easy. But the document published last week warns again that the longer this essential work is left, the greater the risk that it will suffer a sudden failure that makes it uninhabitable and brings a sudden stop to the work of Parliament. We are therefore about to embark on “the biggest and most complex renovation programme of any single building this country has known”.
Next year, construction will begin on the Northern Estate. By the time Master Archie Mountbatten-Windsor is six years old, that work should be completed. It’s exciting to imagine the composition of the House of Commons 2025. Perhaps we will be years into a Corbyn government. Perhaps one of both of the two main parties will split, their duopoly broken. Perhaps Scotland will have become an independent country. Whatever Commons and government we have at that time, MPs will be leaving the Palace of Westminster for up to a decade. Our parliament will never be exactly the same again.
The Commons will move into its temporary home, a replica of the chamber they are leaving behind in the Palace. Even six years hence that might feel somewhat anachronistic, a House of Commons striving to be exactly the same. The rapid pace of technological change may make the idea of walking through voting lobbies seem comical, or it may be that the House guards its traditions as fiercely in 2025 as it does in 2019.
The pace of social, political and technological change in our society makes it particularly hard to future proof the ‘temporary’ arrangements, never mind preparing for what the country and the world will look like when the Commons moves back into the Palace in the mid-2030s. Today we are all on mobile devices that need to be plugged in. By then we may have no need of chargers, or even the devices we plug into them.
This is the challenge facing the Delivery Authority – how to keep pace with progress. When Archie Mountbatten-Windsor is a troubled teen – and we already look forward with anticipation to reading all about his antics in whatever the Daily Mail has evolved into by that point – there could be as many female MPs as there are male. There is a strong likelihood that men will be in the minority. We know nothing about what sort of politics they will espouse, what parties they will represent, what vision of the country they want to pursue. Ignore the gloom merchants of today. Restoration and renewal is good for all of us, a national project of international significance. If we get it right, the world will applaud. Here’s to the House of Commons, 2035.
There is a small but fascinating mini-exhibition on the first floor of PCH, entitled The Iron Lady. It marks 60 years since Margaret Thatcher became an MP and 40 years since she became Britain’s first female prime minister. Several MPs have shared photos of the famous Spitting Image puppet of Mrs T, which is certainly a surprising thing to see on the way to a committee meeting. There are also various cartoons of the Lady. A personal favourite is a curious teapot, with her nose elongated elephant-like to form the spout. It’s hard to imagine anyone doing the same to David Cameron.
It is 25 years since the death of Labour leader John Smith, a time to think about what might have been. He was only 55 years old, the hopes of many in the nation were invested in him and he seemed certain to be the country’s next prime minister. The shock of his death still resonates with those old enough to recall that dark day. Ian Murray paid tribute in a debate last week, when he quoted those poignant words Smith said the night before he died: “The opportunity to serve our country – that is all we ask.”