Daniel Moylan is a former Deputy Chairman of Transport for London, former Chairman of the London Legacy Development Corporation and was chief aviation advisor to Boris Johnson as Mayor of London. He has recently been nominated for a Conservative peerage.
A few days spent in York leave one in no doubt what a splendid home it would make for the House of Lords. The Minster more than rivals Westminster Abbey, good quality houses and flats are available within and near the old walled city, and the Grade I Listed Palladian Assembly Rooms, now somewhat incongruously occupied by Ask Italian, would make a most fitting chamber for their Lordships’ deliberations.
So it was a disappointment to hear on my return to London that the body charged with considering future Parliamentary accommodation had ruled out York as an option, even for the period when the Palace of Westminster is evacuated for restoration works.
Apparently, the weighty constitutional issues raised by such a foray into barbarian lands were beyond their remit, and they would require an instruction from Parliament itself to contemplate so reckless a step. But that po-faced message was, of course, accompanied by a silent smirk at the pleasure of giving the Prime Minister a poke in the eye for his temerity in voicing such a provocative and insensitive speculation.
It would be easy to understand this reluctance were we still living in the days before the railways opened, when a stage-coach would have taken several days to convey peers from London to York, exposing their distinguished persons to the indignity of inclement weather, the depredations of highwaymen and the inconvenience of shaken bones.
But it is now possible to make the journey safely and comfortably in two hours – not much more time than many peers spend getting to Westminster – and one arrives in York at a splendid railway station just a short walk from the city centre.
The argument for a move to York, temporarily or permanently, is of course that it would show the people of this country outside the capital that their legislators have heard the message of the 2016 EU referendum and the 2019 general election – the message that the desire for respect and control was to be found amongst voters in all parts of the country, not just in the Great Wen of London. Moving to York might have been a gesture, but gestures matter. Iconography is also a skill of government.
So, if not York, what? What steps does Parliament – and in particular the House of Lords – think are needed to give the electorate the respect they seek and – let’s be frank – to show they have changed after spending three years undemocratically trying to overthrow the people’s vote to leave the European Union?
And this is where that unmistakable smirk comes in. Because what it shows is that, for too many legislators, this question does not arise, and the only game they see is the narrow Westminster to-and-fro in which biffing the Prime Minister for a short-term thrill is the acme of political maturity. It’s as if the messages from the electors, received, however unhappily, every few years, can be ignored in the lengthy intervals.
But those messages have been clear: on three occasion the voters have rejected the wisdom of their legislators: in 2016, marginally, when they voted Leave, in 2017, confusedly, when they rejected Theresa May’s half-baked approach to Brexit, and in 2019, emphatically, when they endorsed Johnson, champion of Vote Leave, to get Brexit done, refusing the deceitful ruse of a second referendum in which a full Brexit would not even have been on the ballot-paper.
And they have not gone away. Despite all the buffeting the Government has taken as it has struggled to face the unprecedented assault of Covid-19, its stock remains impressively high with the electorate. There is no sign that they are transferring their affections to a legislature that continues to laugh up their sleeve at them.
I have no idea if Number Ten will now abandon the suggestion of moving the House of Lords to York. Maybe Johnson will be stirred to take it up with renewed vigour. Or it may be quietly dropped. But a serious and reflective Upper Chamber would be thinking now of the changes needed to continue relevant to the electors. There is little sign of that to date.