Deputy Prime Minister's questions, 22 May 2012
For most of its history, this island has survived, indeed prospered, without there being a Deputy Prime Minister. It is possible, I suppose, to reach for historical analogs, but they have their limits. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, for example, "did" for his brother, Edward IV, up to the point, if Shakespeare is to be believed at least, of doing for virtually everybody else; yet murdering the leader of the opposition is a pleasant fantasy, not practical politics. Besides, Richard's is an object lesson in what awaits those in whom political ambition goes beserk: infanticide and falling off your horse. This is not something that David Cameron would want to be reminded of.
The modern post of Deputy Prime Minister was created by Margaret Thatcher, who needed a non-post to give to Geoffrey Howe to round off his humiliation after sacking him as Foreign Secretary. She might have made him the Archbishop of Canvey Island, or Vice-Chancellor of Dogger Bank University, except that it wouldn't have sounded so convincing from the mouths of apologists who needed to be able to say that it was a promotion. Michael Heseltine held down the job for a few years - though he preferred the grander title of President of the Board of Trade - and then John Prescott, who would have been perfect for transitioning the role from the efficient to the dignified part of the constitution, except for one flaw in the reasoning that it would be too mean-spirited to point out. Nick Clegg holds the title today on similar terms of Prescott: a political compromise spiced up with some things to do to keep him busy.
One of the things Mr Clegg does is constitutional reform. He is not very good at it. Last year he tried to change the voting system and failed, and this year he wants to change the House of Lords. Smug opinion has it that he will fail again. In anticipation of what would be a joyous, street-party, event on the Conservative backbenches, various of its members rose at Deputy Prime Minister's questions to goad its target. Chief among these was Mr Peter Bone, the lankier half of Bone & Hollobone, a notorious East Midlands based right-wing double-act, whose names are a delight to students of the onomatopoiec in politics everywhere.
Hollobone (Philip, the member for Kettering) came later in the show, with a question about fining some part of the population that had displeased him, but for the moment the member for Wellingborough, dripping with sarcasm, wanted assurances from our "very courageous Deputy Prime Minister" that debate on House of Lords reform would not be curtailed.
Mr Bone is opposed to reforming the Lords. This may be because, in the most noble reactionary traditions, he is in favour of keeping things as they are. However, since in modern politics it is generally unwise to reveal your true motives, he is obliged to present his opposition in terms of there being better things for Parliament to be getting on with. In which case it may be thought curious that Mr Bone's question to Mr Clegg was also a warning to him not to stop the Commons taking all the time it wants on the legislation. This irony was not lost on Mr Clegg who, in reply, advanced the revolutionary idea that government was capable of doing more than one thing at once. "Ample time will be allowed" to debate the Bill, the DPM told Mr Bone, though of course for his interlocutor such time will either be too much or too little, or perhaps both at the same time, but under no circumstances just right.
As to these better things Parliament has to be getting on with, we got a glimpse into what these might be later in the day as the House settled down for two hours to discuss whether people who lied to its inquiries should be thrown into prison. This is because several witnesses to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee's recent inquiry into phone hacking are held to have been parsimonious with the truth before it. Many might think that this is not the most pressing issue facing the country either, in which case they will have been reassured to see that barely a dozen MPs had turned up to debate it. The rest presumably were out and about, starting small businesses, hiring apprentices, working on international oil prices and all the other things uppermost in our national minds. They didn't miss much. The House resolved upon the yawning assent of those few members in it at the time to remit the question to another committee.
At least one member had got her priorities sorted out. Mrs Helen Grant, a Conservative from Maidstone, wanted to know whether, if the next baby born in direct line to the throne were a girl, she would inherit, even though the law on male-preference primogeniture has yet to be changed. Mr Clegg was pleased to assure her that this would be so. However, given that what Mrs Grant had actually asked was "if the birds and the bees of the romantic Isle of Anglesey were to conspire and bless our future King of England and his wife with the patter of tiny feet before this law was enacted and if that royal baby turned out to be a little girl, would she succeeed to the throne", it is a matter of sheer good fortune that the Deputy Prime Minister did not throw up instead.