There is a charm in endings. Athletes, it has been said, become almost interesting in the last lap. Whether the same can be said of MPs is questionable, but they certainly have in mind the approach, in 70 days’ time, of the general election.
A a holiday mood was detectable among our legislators. As they drifted out into the Members’ Lobby, it would not have been surprising to hear them burst into song: “No more Latin, no more French, No more sitting on a hard green bench.” A considerable proportion of these MPs are approaching the end, not just of term, but of their political careers.
If David Cameron leads the Tories to defeat, he could be one of them. But he too adopted a lighter tone. It suited him. His manner was that of a commander who has made every possible preparation for the campaign which lies ahead, and therefore sees no point in worrying about the outcome. He believes he deserves to win, and has delegated much of the task of actually crushing the enemy to his trusty subordinate, Oltep, who as usual bobbed up and down all over the Tory benches, from which he was thrown repeatedly at Labour. Our Long-Term Economic Plan (to use Oltep’s official title) does not become any more exciting with repetition, but there is a soothing dulness to the idea which helps give the Tory election strategy a reassuring feeling of solidity.
Ed Miliband does not have the first idea how to tackle Oltep. He instead sought, in an earnest tone, to tackle Tory MPs for wanting to be allowed to go on doing more than one job. Miliband warned Cameron: “You can vote for two jobs or you can vote for one.”
This choice was valuable, for Labour and Conservative MPs instinctively find themselves on opposite sides of it. To a socialist, it is obviously right for an MP to have only one job, and to concentrate full-time on It: to take on extra work would be greedy, frivolous and unfair. To a conservative, by contrast, it is ridiculous for an MP to be confined to parliamentary duties, which should in any case not be thought of as a job: to take on other activities is an enrichment of one’s experience, and means one has more to contribute to Parliament.
Sir Peter Tapsell, the Father of the House, warned that if other forms of work were prohibited, membership of the House would soon be confined to “obsessive crackpots or to those who are unemployable anywhere else”, along with the very rich and their spouses. But even so redoubtable a Cavalier as Sir Peter could not persuade the puritannical Roundheads on the Opposition benches of the justice of his cause. How reassuring to find there is still an ideological gulf in politics.