While Tory activists in Wakefield made their last-ditch attempts to prevent the inevitable, and the Commons sampled the delights of Defra questions, in the other place - no, not Tiverton - the Lords were debating a loaded topic: the “impact on democratic processes from any reduction in standards of behaviour and honesty in political life”.
It wouldn’t have taken a Sherlock Holmes-level sleuth to work out what – or should that be who – this referred to.
Never a chamber to miss an opportunity to bask in moral righteousness, the Noble Lords seized the chance to do so. Lord Morse, the former comptroller of the National Audit Office, whose debate it was, contrasted the dastardly occupants of Number 10 with the heroes of the pandemic – Messrs Whitty, Vallance and Van Tam, hard-working NHS staff, and the public, for stoically battling through “tough and long-enduring restrictions”.
He fondly remembered those weekly NHS clapathons, “making use of a saucepan to amplify my praise” (pass the sickbag, Alice). This made it all sound like a scouting jamboree or jolly village cricket match, rather than a moment of mass national psychosis.
Their Lordships are sometimes given to indulging in retrograde views and looking back misty-eyed at the past, but you’d hope for a full-blooded defence of hare-coursing or the Test acts, not this kind of mushy sentimentalism.
In the Commons, MPs’ contributions tend to be of a more parochial bent: “Does my Right Honourable Friend agree with me that the new footbridge in my constituency will support the Government’s levelling-up agenda and really stick it to Vladimir Putin?”
Lord Wolfson, in contrast, invoked Aristotle, demanding an enhanced and reinvigorated role for the Lord Chancellor. Lord Anderson of Swansea managed to quote St Paul, Thomas Carlyle, Plato and one of the more obscure US presidents, William McKinley, most famous for being assassinated. “I fear we live in an age of visceral prejudice”, boomed Viscount Colville of Culross, who yearned for a new kind of public debate, channelling the Ancient Greek agora.
The Bishop of Blackburn’s speech was delivered in an odd series of jerks and nods, as if he were announcing the winner of a particularly high-stakes raffle. He spoke of respect, the common good and “the growing absence of a moral compass”. Lord Vaizey responded with an enormous yawn.
Air of a therapy group for Europhiles
Then came the clubbable Lord Butler of Brockwell, private secretary to Heath, Wilson and Thatcher, with a polite filleting of the PM. However, the Prime Minister most obviously present was the stentorian wraith of Harold Macmillan, which hovered over his intervention – all noble sentiments and plummy vowels. “No system of regulation will be adequate”, swelled the peer, in peerless Grandee patois, “unless our leaders themselves demonstrate high standards”.
Baroness Wheatcroft’s contribution seemed more an exercise in catharsis than anything else. “I am devastated by what this government is doing to trash the reputation of this parliament”, she boomed, issuing dire warnings of the “trickle-down” effect of corruption on public life, as in Trump’s America and Putin’s Russia. She read out the Nolan Principles one by one, taking ponderous pauses for effect. By now, the debate had taken on the air of the community centre on a weekday evening – a therapy group for hardened Europhiles. “Hello, my name is Baroness Wheatcroft and I’ve hated Boris for 15 years”… “Hi Baroness Wheatcroft.”
Eventually Lord True, the minister of state, stepped into the breach to defend the PM against a barrage of critics. True, a softly-spoken, dependable sort with the demeanour of a docile guinea pig, reiterated the Prime Minister’s commitment to better governance and urged peers to await the outcome of the privileges committee’s deliberations. Were standards of public life raised by all this? Probably not. But I think their Lordships had fun along the way.