Friday, May 26, 2006

Ardent for a glimpse of James Chuter-Ede

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

Face spotting

It’s one of the sights of London. The Commons division bell rings and hundreds of MPs stream out of their offices in Portcullis House, along the tunnel under Westminster Bridge Road and into the House to vote.

They make a sound like a coal train. And if you are going the other way at the time, they have much the same effect.

Famous faces whoosh past – Glenda Jackson, Boris Johnson, Stephen Byers. Faces you thought were long retired. Faces you recognise vaguely, if at all.

It must be like trainspotting in the good old days: a few crack mainline expresses amid a sea of shunters and tank engines. Perhaps small boys once waited here with notebooks, ardent for a glimpse of James Chuter-Ede or Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller.

But any trying it today would be shot as a terrorist, or shipped off to the Jack Straw Memorial Reform School, Dungeness, at the very least. So it’s a sight few people get to see.

When I met them on Monday the MPs were on their way to vote against John McDonnell’s amendment to the Armed Forces Bill. McDonnell was concerned the bill allows a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for desertion. He feared it might be used against soldiers with conscientious objections to serving in Iraq.

He did not convince many. The bill is less harsh than the present law, and the maximum sentence McDonnell would countenance was two years. Few saw this as adequate for an act of desertion that put lives at risk.

What really did for McDonnell’s amendment, though, was Harry Cohen’s support. Cohen sounds exactly like Lou in Little Britain. You can imagine him describing the Srebrenica massacre as “a bit of a kerfuffle in the Balkans”.

There were some MPs who did not have to join the charge from Portcullis House. They were the defence experts already in the chamber. Notable on the Tory benches was the former Army office Patrick Mercer. It is a rare treat for MPs to listen to someone who knows what he is talking about.

And on the Liberal Democrat benches it was good to see Nick Harvey as our defence spokesman. One of the most encouraging things about our new leadership has been his return to prominence.

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