Julian Huppert, the MP for Cambridge, is unhappy, according to the Times (£). When he rises to speak in the Commons, his fellow MPs greet him with a collective sigh, as theatre-goers once greeted Peter O'Toole's legendarily calamitous production of "Macbeth". Yesterday, they upped the ante – and Mr Huppert clambered to his feet amidst a chorus of jeers. Hansard records the following recent exchange: "Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) rose. Hon Members: "Oh, no." Asked if he felt bullied, Dr Huppert replied – honestly and pithily – "Yes."
I know how he feels. Over ten years ago, I was minding my own business in the Commons chamber, in the pleasant state of daydream that MPs habitually slip into when their colleagues are speaking, when my tranquility was suddenly and brutally disturbed. Tony Banks, the former Labour MP, was speaking. He was saying that John Thurso, the MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, looked remarkably like Lord Lucan. "He has done well to seek the anonymity of being a Liberal Democrat," he said.
How exquisitely put, I thought. What a sage this Banks must be. Then he flung an arm out in my direction. "There is a Tory Back Bencher who looks remarkably like Mr. Bean," he said. Oh, the hurt, shame and humiliation! Worst of all, Banks was right. Lord Thurso really does look like – and for all I know, may actually be – Lord Lucan. (Please don't ask what a peer is doing in the Commons: it's a long and complex story.) And I really do bear a passing resemblance to an imaginary character whose name for some reason escapes me.
Yes, Dr Huppert has a point: the House of Commons is not for the faint-hearted. It gets far worse than gentle jibes about which comic characters MPs look like. They can treat their colleagues with brutality – or, even worse, with indifference. To wind up a debate from the front bench to a background buzz of conversation and chatter from other MPs can feel like sailing a frail craft against a violent headwind. Women MPs in particular have complained about the clubby brutality in the chamber.
I think it was Teresa Gorman who first complained of MPs making juggling motions and mouthing "Melons" when female MPs rose to speak. The Commons was certainly predominately male until very recently – a point brilliantly projected by Phyllida Lloyd's "The Iron Lady", which used a ceiling camera to portray Margaret Thatcher's isolated journeys through the Commons lobbies. Gorman and Thatcher are also both reminders of how danger can come most often from one's own side.
I am saving up for a rainy day details of which Labour Treasury Minister's performances at the dispatch box would elicit knowing winks from Ed Balls to me when I was a shadow minister on the opposite bench. But although Huppert has a point, he misses several more – including some important ones. The turbulent character of the Commons flow from its division into Government benches, Opposition benches – and the antiphonal dialogue that takes place between the two.
Sure, the Commons can be appalling – the shameful treatment of Paul Maynard by Labour MPs being a telling example. But would the chamber really be better were it laid out like a horseshoe – like the Senate, in which politicians breeze in to make their speeches, and then leave? And isn't the Commons often at its most deluded when MPs mostly agree? (Think appeasement; think Concorde; think 101 other examples.) in any event, the Commons is being modified by coalition and, more significantly, by the rising number of women.
To cheer Huppert up, here is a video of the Muppet Show. To cheer me up, I promise a video of Mr Bean…in due course…