Jacob Rees-Mogg is angry and it’s not because lockdown has interrupted his supply of buttered crumpets. No, Jacob is angry because parliament isn’t sitting properly. That might sound rich, coming from someone whose farcical reclining posture has defined his political career, but he’s not complaining about his fellow MPs poise – he’s pissed off about them not being at work.
From the front bench of the depleted Commons chamber, the ‘leader of the house’ argued on Wednesday that it was hypocritical for the government to return kids to classrooms, when most MPs weren’t sitting. Rees-Mogg is understandably keen that schools go back asap; he has six children and you just know he’s tripping over them in the east wing – but this is clearly about more than education and the notional example MPs might set.
Mogg and his fellow travellers on the hawkish right of the Tory party want to send out a signal to the whole country. They want to get the wheels of the economy turning and return life to normal, before anyone starts getting funny ideas.
A century of half-arsed tinkering
It might be too late for that. Coronavirus has tossed a hand-grenade at our routines and rituals. Lockdown is challenging everything from the way we educate, to the way we work, to the way our country is run.
Mogg is a nostalgic, a patrician Edwardian cosplayer, drawn to parliamentary life by the reassurances of its absurd traditions and Hogwartian customs. Coronavirus has upended normality and with it the practises of parliament in a way that a century of half-arsed tinkering at the edges of political reform never got close to achieving.
Jacob Rees-Mogg now finds himself playing Alec Douglas-Home in a Zoom world and it’s unsettling his three piece suit.
Jacob Rees-Mogg’s whole life has been leading up to this speech pic.twitter.com/ANCgpr58bc— Daniel Kraemer (@dcakraemer) May 13, 2020
If, like 59 per cent of Conservative MPs, you had a private or selective grammar education, there’s something very consoling about the Houses of Parliament. From the gothic corridors lined with paintings and busts, to the prefectorial whipping system, to the class-like committee rooms, to the great halls that act as communal debating chambers – the palace of Westminster is basically a great big public school. And as with those antediluvian educational institutions, the only ‘real people’ to be seen are serving behind the canteen. This is not a real world or anything approximating to it.
So many aspects of our parliament are stupidly and unnecessarily archaic that it’s hard to know where to begin. The layout of the Commons is deliberately adversarial. A throw-back to the days in the 16th century when MPs sat in the choir stalls of St Stephen’s Chapel. It encourages confrontational, angry politics that serves individual egos over the interests of the electorate. The vast and unnecessary horde of MPs – 650 currently – compares unfavourably with other countries and the asinine traditions, comically named officers and ludicrous pomp conspire to turn the place into a live action pantomime.
House of Lords
The House of Lords is even worse. An institution that is utterly unfit for purpose. The presence of Bishops and 92 hereditary peers on the red benches is an affront to any notion of modern democracy. It serves largely as an old people’s home for political retirees and as a consolation prize for those who never won a seat in a parliamentary election.
Both houses and indeed the entire political system are long overdue a radical overhaul but Boris Johnson’s massive majority seemed, in December at least, to dash any hopes of such a thing happening.
And yet, since lockdown began, a curious thing has occurred. The Commons has been transformed. Stripped of the braying, Prime Minister’s question time has served an actual purpose. MPs are no longer yelling above the cacophony of faux uproar. Politicians are holding each other to account. It’s looking peculiarly relevant.
Here is a glimpse of a better world; one where PMs are cross examined and where questions are properly considered and answered. Frankly it must put the fear of God into the likes of Mogg and the rest of the unnecessary Tory cannon fodder.
Jacob Rees-Mogg doesn’t want to ‘set an example’ – he wants the old order to continue. But as this Covid-19 crisis rumbles forward it might yet bring that conceit and others, tumbling down.