“I’d rather take advice from my valet than from the Conservative Party Conference“, said Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Balfour at the beginning of the last century.
Most Conservative Peers seem to agree. I counted a trio of former Tory Chief Whips, and at least a dozen former Cabinet Members, in the Chamber today, and there was no lack of speeches from their benches yesterday. All their best known characters were in their customary places. They clearly think they can make a better contribution to the life of the nation here, well away from their party conference.
However, this afternoon a Labour spokesman confessed that a deal had been struck “in the usual channels” (which means, in effect, a fix between the Conservative and Labour whips) that no votes would take place this week in case the balance between the parties was distorted by the absence of conference attenders. They needn’t have worried. At that moment I counted many more Conservative Peers in the Chamber than Labour Members.
There is a curious feeling of disconnection between Parliament and politics this week. Perhaps Conservative Ministers here don’t think much of the theatrical Human Rights Act-bashing that is taking place 200 miles up the M1. It’s quite a contrast to our own conference in Birmingham two weeks ago, where Ministers had to be on site, accounting to Liberal Democrat members in numerous policy debates. I always feel proud that our 6,000-strong assembly (as we used to call it when we were lucky to get 600) still puts decision-making before fanfare.
Meanwhile, some of us are as busy as ever. I am taking advantage of the time to set about the prosaic task of moving office. The House authorities took on Number 1 Millbank some years ago, and have been working ever since to merge it with 2 Millbank. Together they are re-christened Millbank House. Disgracefully, a considerable sum of public money was wasted in the course of the project. The House bought the buildings in 2004 and their previous tenants left in 2007 but work wasn’t scheduled to begin until 2009, so there were two years lost. I exposed all this in a Parliamentary Question in 2008.
All of that said, the extra offices – now they are finally open – are a big step-forward since the place never had enough space for every Peer even to have a desk (let alone his or her own room), and that was before the big influx of new Peers in 2010. I used to share a small room with two other Peers, making it all but impossible to hold meetings there, or to share with staff. Now, I am in a bit of a bigger room, with just one other colleague, and my Assistant can sit just outside.
It’s one of the mad ways of this place, though, that having invested in the extra space, arrangements are suffering for a haporth of tar. For example, staff desks have no computers on them, and no phones. And the new offices have either shelves for books, or cabinets for files; no one, as far as I can see, has both.
I am not complaining. When I was first elected in 1974, I barely had a space on a table, shared with seven other MPs, and my part-time secretary had no place to put her electric typewriter. So we are lucky to be well-accommodated now, and I’m sure all the absurdities will sort themselves out with time. Meanwhile, ringing people up and firing off emails to try and get it all dealt with is a welcome distraction from the endless conference speechifying on our television screens.