Could the Other Place be put in another place?
4 min read
The mooted move to York has caused consternation. Getting from the Garrick in time for questions is tricky enough; having to dice with National Rail would create an intolerable strain, writes Patrick Kidd
Monday afternoon in the House of Lords had a serious feel about it. Oral questions on the worrying situation in Kashmir (a topic that seems to have been discussed every week since the 19th century), the persecution of Uighurs in China, the environment and the Holocaust memorial were followed by an urgent debate on something of even greater concern: a proposal leaked to the press that the Lords could be uprooted to York. Or, to use the euphemism preferred in the Commons chamber, that Another Place could be put in another place.
This had caused consternation. Getting from the Garrick in time for questions is tricky enough, with some peers only getting one tilt at the cheese trolley, but having to dice with National Rail would create an intolerable strain. Just think of poor Black Rod. On State Opening day she’d do a two-hour train journey only to get a door slammed in her face. If she wanted that life, she’d have become a journalist.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, who had done his bit as a commuter by travelling to London from South Ayrshire for 26 years as an MP, opened the bowling, asking Earl Howe, the minister, if this was really a serious proposal, especially given all the money that is being spent on restoring Parliament. Baroness Smith of Basildon, the shadow Leader of the House, suggested that the prime minister was “as worried about Lords scrutiny as he is about Andrew Neil”.
Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate, a former MEP for Yorkshire, said that “in the interests of national unity”, the Commons should also be moved: to Scotland. Lord Kirkhope was perhaps optimistic about how well that would go down on Clydeside. As Lord Forsyth later remarked, the North hadn’t voted Tory because they were longing for more politicians to descend on them. Or should that be ascend?
Earl Howe deflected all these questions with characteristic civility. The minister has the manner of an assistant in a high-class shoe shop, an effect enhanced by the well-upholstered Woolsack on which the Lord Speaker was perched looking as if he was waiting to try on some brogues, and he slathered on the charm.
“Far greater minds than my own are applying themselves to this important question,” Earl Howe told one peer. “The noble lord puts forward an extremely imaginative idea,” he flattered another. His briefing folder, which was not noticeably overstuffed (and may have included only the Sunday Times article on which this debate was based), was untouched.
Suddenly there came a cry of “Bishop! Bishop!” and the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, who in churchspeak will soon be “translated” from Chelmsford to York, which could play havoc with his vowels, rose to inform peers (“brag” might be another way of putting it) that he is about to acquire a large garden in York and they would be very welcome to put up a marquee in it. “Extremely useful,” Earl Howe purred.
Lord West of Spithead, the former First Sea Lord, had an even more eccentric plan, suggesting that Downing Street should charter a large boat, “one of the great Cunarders”, and use that as a seagoing upper chamber, so that their lordships could tour the country. It would bring a new meaning to floating voters. After a few minutes more of this, the Lord Speaker had heard enough. “We must move on,” he said. But they almost certainly won’t.
The Lords later showed their independent spirit by voting through amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill, which were promptly rejected in the Commons before the Lords caved in and let the thing pass. Lord Cormack said he hoped they could now finally stop saying the word “Brexit”. Delightfully, the deputy Speaker, in a variation on the usual form of words, had told peers as they went to vote that “contents should go out by the throne, not contents by the bar”. It seemed wise. Many of them looked in need of a good drink.
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