Following the recent successful country launches of Bylines Scotland and Bylines Cymru we are proud to announce the imminent launch of Backbench Bylines, as we move to this equally fertile but geographically narrower focus. Our first village Bylines will bring you news and opinions from Westminster, turning a spotlight on the people who work there. We have named it Backbench Bylines, having discovered a rich seam of quirky, unfamiliar insights that we hope you enjoy.
At the outset, we will highlight some unheralded Members of Parliament whose auditions for GB News were fortunately unsuccessful.
In our first edition of Backbench Bylines we bring you: exclusive gossip from the tearoom; a piece on the rumoured closing down of the Hansard translation facility; a feature on a little-known all-party interest group; and news of attempts by some MPs to replicate a tradition started by the late Tony Benn of concealing commemorative plaques in broom cupboards for women who stood up for something, or someone.
Hugh Manera editor, Backbench Bylines
Commons tearoom gossip
by Eve Stropper, Backbench Bylines
Backbench Bylines will bring you crumbs of gossip from the more sober MPs, those who eschew the temptations of the Strangers’ Bar. Earwigging plays an important part in the plagiarising of creative thinking that, mere days later, finds its way into major legislation. This has been particularly useful at the fag-end of a government that has run out of ideas. Many of our best laws began as lightbulb moments in this inner, taxpayer-subsidised, sanctum of parliament.
Our spy in the tearoom tells us that, alongside the modest Liz Truss’s leaked resignation honours list [shouldn’t modest come before leaked? Ed], is a plea to the new King to begin his reign by awarding a rare honour in the gift of the reigning monarch. In 1940, George VI conferred on the plucky island of Malta the George Cross, a civilian version of the Victoria Cross. The medal is awarded for acts of heroism or courage in circumstances of extreme danger.
A group of six tearoom regular MPs plans to beseech the King to award a George Cross to a street in London that has been punching above its weight during the recent turbulence and uncertainty. With bold and, at times, outrageous influence and thinking, its occupants helped forge plans to look after the interests of the few who congregate in nearby buildings. Michael Fabricate MP, undeterred by his failure to persuade Theresa May to purchase a new yacht for the Royal family, is rumoured to be spearheading the campaign to award the George Cross to Tufton Street in Westminster.
Eve Stropper, Backbench Bylines
Hansard translation facility becomes a victim of the sunset on Brexit legislation
by Avril Idiote, Backbench Bylines
When the then business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg introduced the retained EU law (revocation and reform) bill to parliament in the autumn of last year, few were aware that the Hansard translation office existed, never mind that it would become a victim of this sunsetting legislation. This small office will cease to exist in a few months’ time.
With English being one of the three ‘procedural languages’ of the EU, parliament is currently obliged to give due recognition to the other two by recording its business in French and German.
I visited the small office in Portcullis House to spend time with the sole transcriber who records debates into French for EU consumption. Frances Mieux, one of the 150k French nationals living in the UK, has performed this role for the last 13 years. She explained how surreal it was to translate Brexit debates in plain sight of politicians that were antagonistic towards her homeland.
Frances described the complexities of filtering out what the backbench microphones in the chamber pick up as asides when ministers address the House. During the aftermath of the recent Kwarteng budget, she logged an expletive from the Labour backbenches, followed by an embarrassed “Pardon my French!”. As Hansard does not always record debates verbatim this did not make its way into the permanent record.
I learned that Norman French was the official language of government hundreds of years ago but that some of it is still in use today in some of the formal exchanges between the Lords and Commons during the passage of a bill.
On the wall behind Frances’ workstation I noticed a newspaper clipping that contained a photograph of Boris Johnson from last September when he made his “Donnez moi un break” quip during the rift with Paris over the Aukus defence and security deal discussions. On the cutting, someone had scribbled “Be careful what you wish for!”.
Frances declined to say who the scribbler was but confessed that transcribing the meanderings of the ex-prime minister had been the most challenging task in this job, with his unfinished sentences, ums, ahs, and irrelevant empty linguistic flourishes that passed for answers during PMQs. I was taken aback with her bluntness, but she revealed that she will leave her job before the sun sets on the translation service, securing a post with the Canadian government where 23% of the debates are conducted in French.
Emboldened by this, I pushed her for an opinion on Liz Truss’s answer during the leadership content on whether Emmanuel Macron was Britain’s friend or foe? She laughed gently, and said “Do you mean the ‘jury is still out’ comment? Well, it reached a decision on PM Truss very quickly didn’t it?”
Adieu, merci et bonne chance, Frances!
Avril Idiote, Backbench Bylines
Should the River Tweed be a fully Scottish river?
by Willy Gunn, Bylines Scotland
The Scottish National Party has not let the heather grow under its feet during the recent contest for the leadership of the party. Despite polling that suggests the appetite for independence has waned slightly following the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon as first minister, the party has not neglected to sweat the small stuff.
Plans have been drafted to tidy up the last two miles of the River Tweed, famous for its salmon fishing, attracting anglers from all over the world. A party source believes that, if ignored now, this is the kind of detail that will delay independence for Scotland when its people eventually vote to leave the UK.
All but two of the 97 miles of the Tweed run through Scotland, its lower reaches entering the sea in Northumberland at Berwick-on-Tweed. The SNP plans to place a claim on this part of the river through a private members bill in the next parliamentary session. This is the only river in England where an Environment Agency rod licence is not required for angling.
To generate interest in this proposal, supporters are lobbying for a re-release of the song Every River by the famous Scottish Celtic rock band, Runrig. Pete Wishart left the band in 2001 to become the SNP Member of Parliament for Perth and North Perthshire.
It is not clear in whose name the private members bill will be presented. The MP for Edinburgh East, Tommy Shephard, is believed to be enthusiastic about the bid. Sheppard was involved with the famous exchange with the then Commons leader, Jacob Rees-Mogg, when he raised concerns about the ‘Brexit Fishing Disaster’. Rees-Mogg told the House that “the key thing is that we have got our fish back”, adding that “They’re now British fish and better and happier fish for it”.
Bylines Scotland has approached Rees-Mogg for comment.
Willy Gunn, Bylines Scotland
Vexillology in Westminster
by Blanche Field, Backbench Bylines
Bylines readers will be aware of the increased presence of the Union Flag on stages and screens since the Brexit referendum in 2016, but did you know that there is an all-party parliamentary group (APPG) with a special interest in vexillology?
Vexillologists are people with a general interest in flags, but they may also study their history, symbolism and usage.
There are around 755 APPGs altogether, but this particular group is officially known as The Flags and Heraldry APPG, set up “to promote the flying of the Union Flag and flags associated with the UK, British territories and the Commonwealth, heraldry, British symbols and related issues”.
One Labour Peer, Lord West of Spithead, sits on the current committee, alongside one SNP MP, Angus Brendan MacNeil, but the officers are mainly from the Conservative Party with a strong historical presence of politicians from Northern Ireland where the flying of flags is a contentious matter. The current secretary is a Conservative backbench MP for Crawley, Henry Smith. The committee’s discussions have covered the flying of county flags, flags over embassies, in schools (including whether the flag of St David should be flown over schools on 1 March) and at WW1 commemoration events. Henry raised his own white flag yesterday (Friday) by announcing that he will not be seeking re-election.
A recent group meeting focused on the consequences of a typographical error in a memo in which a sentence began “White flags should be flown over government buildings in Westminster…” instead of “Whilst flags should be flown…” A delivery of 40 white flags was redirected to this committee to avoid wastage. It was agreed that these should be flown at the sites of the promised new NHS hospitals. More recently, Lee Anderson MP received an invitation to join the APPG for Flags and Heraldry after tweeting this well-known distress signal on Thursday:
Blanche Field, Backbench Bylines
Plaques in cupboards
by Ollie Agenous, Backbench Bylines
Keen students of parliamentary history will know the story of a plaque secretly placed in a broom cupboard by the late Tony Benn MP. This was in recognition of Emily Wilding Davison, a suffragette who hid in the very same cupboard in the night of the 1911 census thus claiming her address to be the House of Commons in her quest for equal rights to men. She famously died from injuries sustained after throwing herself under the King’s horse at the Derby in her efforts to draw attention to voting injustice.
Benn has admitted to placing other plaques around the Palace of Westminster to celebrate the bravery of people who stood up for what they believed in.
Now, Conservative MP Edgar de Luded (Old Bexley and Furcup) has attempted to resurrect this tradition. He designed and organised a plaque unveiling ceremony in honour of his Westminster colleague, Nadine Dorries, the member for Mid Bedfordshire. The citation describes her singular devotion to former prime minister, Boris Johnson, during his period in office, when all around her were accusing him of dishonesty and incompetence.
The date of the plaque unveiling was set for Monday 22 March. The sergeant at arms had granted permission for the female toilet off St Stephen’s Hall to be used for this discrete ceremony. This is where Ms Dorries allegedly wept after PMQs every Wednesday. Sadly, this had to be postponed as Ms Dorries has not been seen on the parliamentary estate for a number of weeks, allegedly hiding instead in a Talk TV studio in Central London.
The honoured guest, Boris Johnson, invited to do the unveiling was also unable to attend, having time only for a flying visit to The Grimond Room, Portcullus House to meet the privileges committee.
Ollie Agenous, Backbench Bylines
Early day motions
by Hugh Manera, Backbench Bylines
Many Westminster watchers were touched by the use of an early day motion (EDM) by Jim Shannon, the DUP MP for Strangford 12 days ago in the House of Commons. Mr Shannon cleverly recognised the 50th anniversary of the release of I will always love you, by Dolly Parton and in the same sentence managed to convey the significance of the song to him and his wife. At the time of writing 42 other MPs from a range of parties have supported his motion.
EDMs are motions, expressed in a single sentence, formally calling for a debate “on an early day” but are rarely debated. They can be on serious subjects such as the demand for the release of Nelson Mandela but are more frequently trivial or amusing, giving recognition, for example, to an MP’s local under-14 football team.
Their main purpose is to draw attention to matters of interest to a particular MP or group, but in practice they pass into Hansard largely unnoticed. Shannon, however, has not understood what he has unleashed. Since his romantic EDM was tabled, there has been a rash of copycat, gushing motions referencing Number 1 hits.
Taking Wednesday of this week alone, two EDMs were tabled by members of the SNP. One cited the 60th anniversary of The Chiffons’ enduring hit He’s so fine to welcome their new party leader and first minister, Humza Yousaf. The other referenced the 10th anniversary of the Bon Jovi number 1 album “What about now?” to nudge the UK government towards a second independence referendum.
A Conservative member of the European Research Group celebrated The Saturdays hit of ten years ago What about us? to bemoan its waning influence on Tory party policy.
Less elegantly, a Labour member used the Chesney Hawkes debut single The one and only from 1991 to assert Sir Keir Starmer’s right to marginalise Jeremy Corbyn, his predecessor as party leader.
Backbench Bylines is relieved that parliament is not in session, today, 1 April.
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