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.

4 thoughts on “Tottering Westminster: Time to stop the rot

  1. Thank you, Harvey. Again, marvelously written with quite a bite this time. I must say i enjoyed it very much. Warm regards, olivia


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