Tottering Westminster: Time to stop the rot

AND so to Westminster and the beating heart of British politics, to wit St. Stephen’s Tavern, favourite watering hole of parliamentary insiders since the days of Benjamin Disraeli.

But this weekend the legendary hostelry was scaffolded and boarded. Had the Tory grandees sealed themselves inside for a leadership conclave? Had the owners fled in anticipation of whatever disaster might next befall the country?

Thankfully, a half-hidden “open for business” sign indicated the boozer was still serving the public, in contrast to those in office across the street at the House of Commons.

In the old days, you’d nip into the Tavern for a bit of post-question time gossip with fellow hacks, Whitehall advisers and the odd MP.

Now there was nary a politico to be seen, but rather a bemused barful of foreign tourists taking a break from gawking at the tottering ruins of the Mother of Parliaments opposite.

Maybe the pub’s regular denizens were wandering the corridors of power, pinching themselves raw at the prospect of the return of Boris Johnson, potentially the worst sequel since Hammer’s 1968 Dracula Has Risen from the Grave.

At the timing of writing, the would-be king across the water had just flown back from a well-earned break in the Dominican Republic, his third getaway since he quit in July.

But enough of politics. More eloquent scribes than me have already run out of superlatives to describe the shit show the country is currently witnessing.

Let us turn instead to the physical condition of the Palace of Westminster, whose terminal rot provides a timely metaphor for the party that currently occupies its government benches.

The construction of Charles Barry’s Gothic labyrinth began in 1840 to replace the parliament that was destroyed by fire six years earlier. Only the 11th century Westminster Hall had survived.

Within 20 years, Barry’s intricate stonework was already crumbling from the effects of London’s smog and desultory attempts to fix it were to continue into the 1990s despite the interruptions caused by two world wars. In the second of these, German bombers managed to destroy the Commons chamber and wing the clock tower that houses Big Ben.

I first got to know the palace’s serpentine interior as a “lobby” correspondent in the mid-1980s, the era of the Blessed Margaret. In those days the lobby, an inner coterie of political hacks, did not officially exist and neither did the daily briefings to which we would drag ourselves.

The morning session took place in the cozy front parlour at 10 Downing Street; the second in a drafty eyrie hidden in parliament itself at the top of a dim staircase, one of more than 120 in the palace that link its two miles of corridors.

In this roomscape of water stains and mouse droppings, Margaret Thatcher’s Yorkshire terrior, Bernard Ingham, would harangue us on the topic of the day. “I will tell you what’s happening,” was his favourite line, “and then you’ll all go off and write exactly what you like!”

That was in the days before the number of subsidised bars in parliament was slashed to a mere eight. Gone is the infamous Annie’s, where MPs and journalists would gather to opine on important issues of the day or to nip in for a livener before the next dreary debate.

The powers that be have drawn up various schemes to save the crumbling parliamentary estate. For five years the bell tower was obscured with scaffoding while the builders gave it a facelift.

But don’t be fooled. The improvements were merely skin deep. In 2019 the House of Commons had to suspend its sessions when a pipe burst.

But fear not! The government has come up with a plan. (Now, there’s a reassuring concept).

An official report published this year said work to restore the Palace of Westminster to its original glory would cost a mere £22 billion, subject of course to inflation and the plunging pound, and could be completed within a mere 76 years!

So what are the government waiting for? Just get your act together. Solve the energy crisis, feed the growing army of the impoverished, reconstitute the crumbling NHS, promote growth, build Global Britain. Then it’ll be time to get up a ladder and start stripping the walls.

A tale of two cities: what can Athens teach London?

I WAS in Greece during a period of unprecedented economic and political turmoil. I mean ours of course, not theirs.

It had seemed almost unpatriotic to abandon the motherland in her hour of need. But the annual works outing had long been booked and cancelling at the last minute seemed like a wasteful move in a tumbling gilts market.

I pondered that, if things took a turn for the worse and the nation needed my input, I could always “do a Kwasi” and dash back early.

The deciding vote came from my full-time carer, who announced: “For God’s sake, you silly ol’ sod! Get a move on, or we’ll miss the flight!”

It turned out to be a sobering moment to travel to the cradle of democracy and the all-day coffee break and to savour urban walks in Athens and to share idle thoughts with some of its citizens.

On previous visits, I had become used to having to sympathise with the plight of the Athenians as they limped from one meltdown to the next, scouring the backs of their threadbare sofas to come up with enough to pay for the next cup of frappé.

This time the papoutsi, as the Greeks say, was very much on the other foot. “What’s happened to your country,” a young lawyer declared, somewhat too gleefully. “It’s a complete – how you say? – basket case!” 

“Who is this Trust woman?” asked a friend. “Why did the British vote for her?” “Er, well….” I tried to explain. “Er, we didn’t.”

Most conversations would quickly switch to Brexit. That’s when it all started to go wrong, I was told. Why had we done it? Were all the Angloi completely crazy?

I took to quickly downing my ouzo and claiming I had an important idle walk to get on with.

I had been in Greece in 2015 when seven years of problems peaked in what is simply called H Krisi – The Crisis – a time that global concerns about the country’s economic prospects sent bond yields soaring. Sound familiar?

With cash machines temporarily shut down, the population literally ran out of money. EU-imposed austerity measures inevitably followed as, just as inevitably, did widespread impoverishment and riots.

So how might we compare and contrast the fate of our two great cities at a time when London and the country at large faces its own self-inflicted Krisi?

Athens certainly took a hammering in the mid-2010s as people scratched a living and young professionals fled abroad for work or to the islands where they would try to make a go of it farming olives or raising bees.

The sprawling city became increasingly tatty, faded and litter-strewn. The urban rambler would encounter a beggar on the corner of almost every graffiti-covered street.

So how’s it looking almost a decade on? Pretty spruce actually, or at least as much as this sprawling and somewhat chaotic city ever will be. The bars and cafes were full and the formerly effervescent Athenians appeared to have a spring back in their step.

Some say that, on the whole, things have taken a turn for the better. Many have taken the opportunity of the crisis to change their lives by taking up different jobs and opening new kinds of businesses, even if that just means signing up with Airbnb.

Some venture that, in some aspects, life is even better than it was before.

“Look at this place,” said a psychotherapist friend as he surveyed the terrace of our cafe in fashionable Kolonaki. “In the old days it was full of celebrities and politicians and plutocrats. It used to be you wouldn’t be allowed in if you weren’t the right sort. Now look at it. They even served you!”