The next Parliament has a major decision to make – where to take up its temporary abode during refurbishments. GEORGE KEREVAN takes a look at the options.
WHERE shall we move the House of Commons to? A daft question, or just a bit of fantasy politics? Not a bit of it.
Over the next decade the crumbling edifice that is the Palace of Westminster will need to be refurbished. Doing this piecemeal, while both houses of Parliament are in session, could prove very costly.
Besides, MPs don’t fancy working in the equivalent of your average airport – which are usually permanent building sites with a shopping mall for company.
As a result, the betting is that our elected (and unelected) politicians will move out for the duration of the repairs and renovation. But to where? The answer could enliven British politics.
For starters, a number of places outside London have offered themselves as a temporary abode for the UK’s 650 MPs, 831 Peers (more than the elected lot), some 2,000 Palace of Westminster staff, and 3,000 odd political hangers on. That’s a big inward investment in anybody’s book.
Manchester was first to throw its hat in the ring. Council bosses have already set up a “taskforce” to identify a suitable temporary location for MPs when they move out of Westminster for its refurbishment. The moving spirit behind this cheeky move is local Labour MP Graham Stringer.
Of course there are those cynics who suspect Manchester is trying to pull a fast one and that once it had Parliament in town, it might never let it go. At least, not without some big financial quid pro quo from the current Chancellor, who has been punting Greater Manchester as a new “northern” power house.
But the political reality is that most of the political class will want a temporary home for Parliament to stay resolutely in London.
The option that comes top of the list is the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre. The QEII is the largest venue of its kind in central London with a capacity of 2,500. It has the advantage of being just a few minutes away from Parliament, MPs’ offices, and the main civil service buildings.
Assuming John Bercow remains Speaker in the new session, we might get a more adventurous choice. The former press centre and broadcast centres for the 2012 London Olympic Games have come up in this regard.
Still in London but located in the Wild West of the city, the site is also big enough to hold the army of staff that MPs require, not to mention replicating the 8 bars and 23 assorted drinking and eating facilities within Palace grounds.
Mind you, political correctness has somewhat diminished the importance of the Commons’ watering holes. The legendary Annie’s Bar, named after a long-dead barmaid, where hacks and politicians famously met on equal terms, has long since closed. The refurbished and cheerless press bar is now known as Moncrieff’s.
Not that political correctness has entirely cottoned on. In 2013 a freedom of information request revealed that among the bills unpaid by MPs after 90 days the biggest was racked up at the Strangers’ Dining Room by Brian Binley, Conservative MP for Northampton South, for £148.35.
Actually, though often forgotten, the Commons has been peripatetic before, in recent times. After the main Commons debating chamber was destroyed in a Luftwaffe air raid, and the Lords severely damaged, both Houses moved to the Church House annexe. Then from late June 1941 until October 1950, the Commons met in the Lords Chamber, while the Lords met in the Robing Room (a fact which was kept secret during the war). So a lot of those TV and movie dramas showing Winston making his wartime speeches in the Commons are just fiction.
I still think it would be fun (and a salutatory lesson in devolution) for MPs to be relocated – albeit temporarily – to another part of the UK, to breathe a different political air. There are other possibilities besides Manchester.
Just up the M1, Birmingham has put in a claim, ecumenically spearheaded by Conservative Michael Fabricant and Labour’s Gisela Stuart, the local MPs. For a location, they suggest Birmingham’s new library, which was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize and voted Britain’s favourite new building for 2014 in a BBC poll.
I know you think I am going to suggest a location in Scotland. I’m sure if we were still in the middle of the independence referendum, Gordon Brown might have offered (as usual, without consulting anyone else). And I daily expect Jim Murphy to proffer Glasgow, as one of his “policy on the back of a fag packet” ideas.
Here’s a better idea: all of the above. Why not make our legislators meet in rotation across the whole UK? That would get them well and truly outside the Westminster bubble.
Too difficult logistically? Not if we abolish the Lords.