About a dozen captives were paraded this morning on BBC Parliament. They were being held under house arrest so they could participate in an inquiry by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee into the impact of the Coronavirus on business.
One’s first thought has to be for the impact of the virus on the captives themselves. The conditions in which they are being held, shut in a series of what look like a mixture of attics, basements and sculleries, amount to cruel and unnatural treatment.
Not one of them, on this glorious Spring day, was allowed access to fresh air or sunlight. It seems likely that before the hearing was broadcast, they were warned that as they sat in front of their computer screens, nothing must be visible behind them which would lead any member of the public who accidentally tuned in to the programme to suppose that the political class enjoys privileges denied to the rest of us.
Most of the rooms were as bare and cheerless as a prison cell, but in some, it was impossible to ignore the presence of works of art.
Alok Sharma, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, was confined, so far as one could tell, within his actual department.
For surely no one in their right mind would choose to adorn the wall of a private house with the crude daub of a row of ten identical dark blue paddles, or perhaps mortar rockets, which could be seen to the left of his head.
Except they looked too fluffy to be either paddles or rockets. This column’s artistic adviser happened at that moment to pass by, and on being asked what in her opinion the picture to the left of Sharma was actually of, replied in a patronising tone: “It looks like a piece of modern art – it doesn’t necessarily have to be of anything.”
Pat McFadden (Lab, Wolverhampton South East) appeared on the screen. He was confined to an attic, which had a skylight through which one could detect, somewhat indistinctly, a distant, tantalising prospect of trees which were actually waving in the breeze.
McFadden pointed out that while, according to Sharma, the British government’s business loan scheme has so far been taken up by 16,600 businesses, in Switzerland, 98,000 businesses have been helped, for the Swiss only have to fill in a one-page online form, and the funds arrive the next day.
Some of us departed, in our mind’s eye, to a land of alpine meadows, glistening peaks and instantaneous government loans. That option was not open to Sharma, who replied: “We are offering a mixture of support.”
Peter Kyle (Lab, Hove), speaking from a room of indeterminate use whose barrenness was accentuated by a vase of pink roses, put it to him: “You’re erring towards defending the system you have, rather than looking for other businesses that might need help.”
But Sharma told him: “We have to look at the totality of what we’re offering.”
Mark Jenkinson (Cons, Workington) attempted to address us from an empty room. “Mark, we don’t seem to be able to hear you, can you increase your volume,” said Mark Pawsey (Con, Rugby), who was chairing the committee.
Later we returned to Jenkinson, who had increased his volume so much his voice now echoed in a disconcerting way.
Sam Beckett, Acting Permanent Secretary at BEIS, was granted a brief appearance. She had a picture behind her of an angry cow, or possibly an angry bull. It was the most interesting picture we had seen all morning, but did not make one feel any better.
Pawsey called “Nusrat Ghani (Con, Wealden) who we can’t see but is available on audio”.
“Hopefully you still remember what I look like,” a voice said, and paused, but no one said anything.
Sharma, however, who baffled inquiry in part by his friendly manner, said a few moments later: “I very much remember what you look like and look forward to seeing you again.”
We were granted a glimpse of all the participants in the hearing, the screen divided into about a dozen pictures. A number of them were leaning on their hands in attitudes of extreme boredom.
For that is the other way in which Sharma baffled inquiry. He was relentlessly dull.
At this point I received a message that my neighbours had kindly left a bag of artichokes on my doorstep. When I returned to my screen, having put the artichokes on the kitchen table, I pressed the wrong button, and found myself looking, amazingly, at a beautiful picture.
It was by Sir Thomas Lawrence of the Duke of Wellington, the great soldier who also served as Prime Minister, wearing “civilian dress without any appendages of success or power”, as the ninth Duke said with approval, reminding us that when on campaign, the first Duke “did actually wear civilian dress”.
So a fitting modesty of demeanour is by no means a new feature of our ruling class. But if you have time to watch only one of these broadcasts, make it the one about the Duke.