Magazine article The Spectator

Battle Has Begun at Last-Preceded by a Good Bad-Taste Joke

Magazine article The Spectator

Battle Has Begun at Last-Preceded by a Good Bad-Taste Joke

Article excerpt

This Parliamentary session began as it will continue right to the hard-fought end in November next year: in acrimony. In recent weeks, Mr Hague has had the odd problem, but on Tuesday he reminded us that in one respect his qualities are unquestionable: as a Parliamentary puncher.

His crack about Lord Mandelson of Rio - the reference is explained in Stephen Glover's article - was in bad taste; most of the best jokes are. Early in the last Parliament, after poor Stephen Milligan's death, John Smith made a jibe about Tory MPs, stockings and oranges. As Mr Milligan was dead, Mr Smith's dig was in worse taste, but no one complained. In the last Parliament, there were hardly any restraints on taste; almost anything went, as long as the victim was a Tory MP.

But Mr Hague's comments caused a frisson, because he was committing a grave offence: lese-Mandy. A lot of Labour MPs were privately delighted; they wish that they had the nerve to do likewise. Even among the responsible wing of the Labour party - the thinking clone tendency - Mr Mandelson's conduct is causing some alarm. It is becoming increasingly clear that he is accident-prone. Mandelson is born to trouble as the sparks fly upwards, most of them of his own igniting.

But the outcome of this session will not depend solely on the Opposition's success in baiting Mr Mandelson. Labour's strategy is now clear. It will present itself as modernising, exciting, relevant: a people's programme for a people's Parliament, or whatever. The voters will be invited to contrast all this with the Tories, who are only interested in ritual and privilege. But it will not be that easy.

Both sides learned something from the clashes on the European Parliament. The government had not expected that attack, despite its spin doctors' claims that they had provoked it; even by the standards of this No. 10 press office, that was a shameless attempt to rewrite history. Despite their brazenness in pretending otherwise, ministers were taken aback by the fierceness of last week's onslaught; their response, as ever in such circumstances, was petulance, but petulance tinged by anxiety. They had encountered what they always hate encountering: something which they cannot control.

As for the Tories, they are confirmed in their belief in the weapon of surprise. They will now scrutinise every piece of government legislation for opportunities to embarrass ministers, and there will be plenty of them. A priori, we can be certain that a number of this session's bills will be illdrafted: most modern legislation is. But some of these badly drafted bills will almost certainly be ill-thought out; most of this government's proposals are. The combination of under-prepared drafts and lack of intellectual rigour is flammable; that will be a crucial factor in this session.

In at least two areas, asylum and welfare, there is the possibility of a coalition between Tory trouble-seekers and agonising, high-minded liberals. Britain's asylum laws are a mess. We are currently bound by international conventions which were just about sustainable in the days before air travel and when, in both numbers and temperament, most of the refugees in London could be accommodated in the reading room of the British Museum. Those 19thcentury obligations are now untenable, yet the government is merely proposing to tighten their administration. That could be difficult. Repudiating obligations which we could never discharge would be ruthless and, in certain limited circles, unpopular; it would at least have intellectual clarity. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.