Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Looking down on a sea of Lib Con heads - but where's the Labour Wally?

The WMN perch in the press gallery gives me a fine view of the opposition benches. Almost directly above where the Prime Minister sits, for the last three and a half years I have been able to survey the dozen or so Westcountry MPs on the Tory and Lib Dem side.

Now, I have a problem. In the whole of Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Dorset there are just two Labour MPs.

Ben Bradshaw is shadow culture secretary – for the time being at least – leaving Alison Seabeck as the sole backbencher. I shall resist the temptation to suggest this presents me with a political game of Where’s Wally.

Alison’s attempt to stand out during the election of the new Speaker – by wearing an ultra-loyal Labour Red jacked and matching specs – was limited in its impact with the bulk of her female colleagues doing the same.

As it was she was on a green bench near the front and gave me a wave. I suspect in the coming weeks she will be vital voice of opposition in the region.

On the Lib-Con side it was positively bulging, though I laregly only had a view of the top of their heads.

Newly-appointed ministers and very green MPs jostled behind the Speaker’s Chair. Conservative Sarah Wollaston, the GP-turned-MP for Totnes, stood at the door behind the Speaker clutching what appeared to be some forms from IPSA, the expenses watchdog. Very sensible.

East Devon Tory MP Hugo Swire, newly-installed as Northern Ireland Minister, was in the thick of it too.

Amid the mêlée, one impertinent Tory was trying to barge them all out of the way.

“Can I just squeeze through?” inquired… oh… it’s our new Prime Minister, David Cameron.

Punctuality man! At least he was there, though. Gordon Brown, having attracted respect for staying on as an MP, let himself down by not showing up for this parliamentary formality. Indeed, in all the gushing of congratulations to the elections winners and losers, he was completely forgotten.

On the Lib-Con frontbench, the behind-the-scenes struggle for government jobs became all too physical.

It began as the senior ministers returned from a brief but constitutional visit to the Lords.

Business Secretary Vince Cable parked himself on the bench first, tactfully leaving a large space either side, resisting the temptation to cuddle up to his new Tory friends.

Next came Theresa May, new Home Secretary but not a natural bedfellow of Mr Cable.

Things were looking tight when Justice Secretary Ken Clarke spot an inch of green leather between Cable and Transport Secretary Philip Hammond, plonking himself down with a real “oomph”, sparking cheers from the press gallery as if a champion wrestler had just sat on a floored opponent.

Just when it was all looking a bit like sardines in a tin, new Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman came along and somehow found a slither seat to perch on. Though it may actually have been Mr Hammond’s knee.

This is the cosy consensus in action.

Sir Peter Tapsell becomes Father of the House, having first been elected an MP in 1959. He had previously served as an aide to Eden, and frankly knows the place inside out.

Presiding over the re-election of John Bercow as Speaker, he had to endure some truly dreadful jokes at his expense, which he did with good grace.

In the end, Bercow was elected without a fuss. Attempts by Tory troublemakers including Nadine Dorries to force a vote were scuppered by Sir Peter.

We were told to be back for 3.10pm tomorrow. Obviously someone has a big lunch planned.

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