That’s our system. That’s this building. Two sides of the house, two sides of the argument, facing off against each other….We are not built for co-operation.
As Teresa May brokers another messy compromise in her attempt to quell the ever-shriller voices of thwarted Brexiteers and hold the Conservative Party together, it is tempting to regard these days as the most febrile and chaotic in British political memory. My husband always has an answer to that, “It was worse in the 1970s, they were wheeling MPs in on their death beds to vote then.”
James Graham’s whip-smart play, This House takes us right inside those turbulent times, when Labour would stop at nothing to defend their minute majority, when political life was dominated by deals and counter-deals with minority parties and rebels were begged to put personal idealism aside and toe the party line. It is astonishing that the final Callaghan Labour Government hung on for four-and-a-half years before losing a no-confidence motion by a single vote. Poised between a musical, a tragedy and a farce, it almost seems too entertaining, but there is a grim hilarity as the bodies, quite literally, pile up.
Westminster is a notoriously adversarial place. Probably the thing everyone remembers from a tour of the Palace is that on the Commons floor the Government and Opposition benches are separated by a gap precisely the width of two drawn swords. Incipient violence is contained by a web of arcane custom and gentlemen’s agreements. For example, when an MP is unavoidably absent for a forthcoming division, he can request a “pair” – that is, a member of the opposing party agrees not to vote. Most of these arrangements have grown up through custom and practice and can only survive if everyone follows their unwritten rules. It seems to work, most of the time. When it doesn’t, you get Heseltine waving the Mace around in fury and all hell breaks loose – perhaps gentlemen’s agreements matter more than we like to think.
The engine rooms of politics, particularly in a minority or hung Parliament, are the Whips’ Offices where individual convictions are hammered into party unity, superficially at least. Graham takes us deep into these hidden but vital centres of power. Often Labour and Tory whips face one another across the stage. And as the exhausting compromises wear on, the brutality of class warfare becomes more and more apparent.
James Graham writes brilliantly about the last days of Old Labour (and indeed Old Conservatives). This House shows us a collapsing political order on the cusp of seismic change, as the Conservatives back Thatcher as their leader and Labour rely on ageing Trade Unionists, who command loyalty and respect but are physically drained by years of manual labour and hours in smoke-filled rooms. It is truly shocking to see such giants staggering in to vote, one in a blood-stained shirt just hours after surgery, another in a hospital bed with an oxygen cylinder. It is also extremely funny, though at times one feels guilty for laughing.
Several decades later, the haircuts and the music are different but a great deal remains the same. What I took away from this fascinating story was a reminder that, despite all, MPs are human beings, and there is an unexpected and moving gesture of fellow feeling between Chief Whip Walter Harrison and his Conservative opposite number, Jack Weatherill, at the very end. The final question is, how far should one be prepared to go to stave off the inevitable? When does the unthinkable capitulation to reality become the only reasonable and humane course of action? That argument is still continuing as the House limps toward an ominous new world order.
This House is currently on tour. I saw it last week at The Lowry, Salford Quays