All political parties took a day off from campaigning to meet in the Commons for the election of the new Speaker. AKA a total shambles. In theory the whole process could have been wrapped up inside an hour with a simple preference voting system. Instead it dragged on for more than six. Proceedings opened with Ken Clarke, father of the house, inviting the seven candidates to speak for five minutes. Despite all of them promising to be the very opposite of John Bercow, not least in keeping things brief, at least three managed to talk well beyond their allotted time slot. Old habits die hard. Then came the first round of voting which took over an hour. Twenty minutes for MPs to walk 50 yards to the voting lobby to mark their cross and then well 50 minutes or so for the tellers to count the votes of the 570 MPs who had chosen to participate. Something you’d have thought would have taken five minutes tops. The first round knocked out just two candidates, Meg Hillier and Edward Leigh, who clocked up just 22 votes between them. On and on it went, with an extra 20 minutes needed for every subsequent round of voting to allow time to print new ballot papers because MPs couldn’t be relied on to remember just who was still in the running despite being told moments earlier. To help fill in the down time, Tory MPs got Ken Clarke to sign their order papers, while the Labour frontbench signed footballs and beer bottles. The last round was a straight contest between Lindsay Hoyle and Chris Bryant, which Hoyle won at a canter. Just as everyone had known he would when they first walked into the chamber earlier in the afternoon.
The Commons was nearly empty for the final day before parliament dissolved. As is traditional, the afternoon was handed over to MPs who are standing down at the election to make their valedictory speeches and was one of the more entertaining sessions of the past two years. Justine Greening got the ball rolling by interrupting Patrick McLoughlin, who was droning on about his time in the whips’ office, to observe: “In my experience, I always saw the whips’ office as a human resources department, but with the ‘human’ bit taken out.” Then Ed Vaizey managed to confuse everyone by giving a long speech, during which Kate Hoey intervened to say how sorry she was that he was leaving, only to then insist that he wasn’t actually standing down at hall and had just felt like a bit of a natter. The person he most confused, though, was himself, as the following day he announced he was standing down after all. My favourite speech – and not just because I got a name check – my first ever mention in Hansard – came from Labour’s Steve Pound, one of the funniest and most gentle MPs in the current parliament. “I leave the House with great sadness,” he said. “What tipped me over the edge was a message from the Argyle surgery in my constituency, inviting me to attend an end-of-life seminar.” He concluded by saying “Quite clearly, I have achieved very little.” Not true. He was always true to himself and left the Commons a better place than most cabinet ministers. What was most depressing was the realisation that almost all of those standing down were the good men and women from the centre of both main parties. Whatever the result of the next election, parliament will be top heavy with more MPs from the far right and the far left. Politics will be more toxic than ever and the chances of uniting the country virtually nil.
Here’s a thought that’s often bothered me. Would Boris Johnson pass a lie detector test? Is he so well trained to lie that he is now incapable of distinguishing between the truth and falsehoods or is there a vestigial trace of conscience that keeps him awake at night? In his Trump-style rally in Birmingham to launch the Tory election campaign – a few hundred people corralled into the corner of a hall to make it look on TV like the place was rammed, and sharp-suited minders prodding activists to wave their placards at key moments in the speech – it was far easier to keep track of Johnson’s lies than anything remotely accurate. First he declared he didn’t want the election – despite having begged parliament for it three times – and then maintained that MPs had blocked his withdrawal bill despite the fact it had passed its second reading and it had been Johnson himself who had pulled his own legislation. Thereafter, the lies came thick and fast. The only thing the country can trust the prime minister to be is untrustworthy – and in his 10-minute speech I counted almost 20 barefaced lies. That’s one nearly every 30 seconds. He couldn’t even tell the truth about how long he had been in No 10. Almost certainly none of this matters and Johnson will continue to make the same false statements in every speech he gives and most voters either won’t notice or won’t care. But I have decided that I will continue to call him out for his lies in every sketch I write about him. It will make me feel better even if it achieves little else.
According to the latest edition of Country Life, I am a “certified gentleman”. I know this because I manage to tell the difference between Glenda Jackson and Glenfiddich, hold the car door open more often than not, end my relationships face to face rather than by Skype or text – though to be fair the last time I ended a relationship, neither Skype nor text existed, and it was me who was being told to get lost – I wear flip-flops rather than loafers in summer and would never dream of owning a chihuahua. I fear there may be some mistake here, because Country Life goes on to list 39 things that the modern gentlemen does with style, most of which are alien to my skillset. I don’t negotiate airports with ease: I’m a hopeless traveller who annoys my family by insisting on turning up hours early. I have several tattoos, which are a big no-no. I don’t have a tweed suit or dinner jacket. I don’t tip the gamekeeper in the field. I don’t sing lustily in church – partly because I don’t go to church but mainly because I don’t sing lustily anywhere. It’s kinder for everyone that way. I can’t ride a horse, partly because I’ve no interest in learning how but mostly because I’m a bit scared of them. I can’t prepare a one-match bonfire – unless several gallons of diesel are involved. I can’t tie a bowtie. I could go on, but you get the picture. I would be a total disappointment to every Country Life reader. On the other hand, if you’re after a depressive neurotic with high levels of anxiety and general incompetence then I’m your man.
Just a week into the campaign and I’m already feeling knackered. Early starts to hear politicians make promises they have no idea they can keep and each party seemingly hellbent on doing its best to lose the election is hard on the psyche. So home has become more than ever a security blanket, a place where I can detoxify myself after the chaos. I can feel myself regressing by the day. In the early evening, we binge on box sets. We were late to Succession – we’re currently only three-quarters of the way through the first season – but it is perfect escapism. A family that is somehow both more unpleasant than anything our own politics throws up and yet weirdly also more likeable. It’s hard to imagine just how much more dysfunctional the Roy clan is going to get, but with a brilliant cast and whip-smart scripts, I’m sure they will find a way. I’ve also gone back to Sherlock Holmes, my default comfort reading ever since I was a teenager and was desperate for any escape from the boredom of being me. A recent BBC poll of the 100 Best Books included the Hound of the Baskervilles. I’m not quite sure why, as I’ve found the four long-form Holmes stories tend to drag. The Hound of the Baskervilles was a particular disappointment: having promised so much at the start, Holmes rather fades out of the story for nearly 100 pages and then re-emerges near the end for a slightly “so what?” denouement. Far better are the short stories, which are a more gripping mix of plot and character. One a night will see anyone through the next five weeks.
Digested week digested: 34 days and counting
John Crace’s new book, Decline and Fail: Read in Case of Political Apocalypse, is published by Guardian Faber. To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.