Sketch: The Smiths take their bows
As Chloe entered, Jacqui bowed out. The Smiths summed up their parties’ fortunes after 12 years of Labour government.
By Alex Stevenson
For once the focus wasn’t on the frontbenches. The Commons, on its first day back after 82 days in the summery wilderness, was enjoying the dulcet tones of David Miliband update the House on something which happened two months ago.
In normal circumstances the foreign secretary would have been the centre of attention, especially as he was in rather good form. Releasing Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi would not offer terrorists a “scintilla of succour”, he pressed. Tory and Lib Dem calls for an inquiry were dismissed because inquiries were, for the opposition, the “single transferable answer to every policy problem”. What a wag. Literally, at one point, as he deployed his finger from side to side to brush off William Hague’s jibes of ministerial “obfuscation”.
Despite these magnificent exchanges, from wit to shining wit, not everyone was listening. There were hints here and there that something was afoot. A small wee man called Douglas Alexander, whose natural habitat is propping up the frontbenches as international development secretary, slunk in at the far end of the chamber. No one talked to him as he performed his celebrated impersonation of an anonymous backbencher surprisingly well. Dennis Skinner, a few feet away, peered round curiously at his Labour fellows, searching for someone or other. And finally, a small bevy of Labourites trooped their way to the back of the chamber. In their midst, wearing black, was former home secretary Smith (Jacqui). It was time to say sorry.
But not just yet. For Smith and her friends (one of whom, Caroline Flint, provided excellent window-dressing) had to endure a Tory triumph of sickening proportions, the result in its own way of the expenses scandal. Labour MP Ian Gibson’s expenses claims had led to him resigning his seat, letting the Tories into Norwich North. Eighty-one days have passed since Smith’s (Chloe) victory and the long wait was finally over for the Commons’ youngest MP. Smith (Chloe), her parliamentary career ahead of her, entered the Commons chamber.
She was every inch the dutiful schoolgirl. Her impressive eyebrows shot up with excitement as she entered. Flanked by two senior Tories, including uber-grandee Sir Peter Tapsell, Smith (Chloe) darted quick curious glances around the chamber as her seniors – that’s all of them in the room, it should be noted – carried on as usual. The Lib Dems were noticeably absent. Labour MPs studiously ignored her. Friendly pats on the back from her Tory pals made up for it. At one point she stepped out of rank to speak to one of them. Tapsell yanked her back into line with military precision. She squeezed her neatly folded order paper nervously.
Smith (Jacqui) looked on. A word of comfort from one of her entourage made her smile as she gazed on the Norwich North victor. Smith (Jacqui), brought down by the expenses scandal; Smith (Chloe), raised up by it. She advanced forward, read her oath slowly and with squeaky-clean precision, and carefully signed her name in the book. Smiling widely, Tory MPs ‘hear-heared’ her warmly as she walked to shake Speaker Bercow’s hand. Cameron (David), who had briefly appeared to witness his latest acquisition, was up like a rocket as soon as proceedings moved on. The coronation was over. It was time for an execution.
Smith (Jacqui’s) personal statement was somewhat underwhelming. She was as petulant as ever, huffing and puffing her way through what was clearly an utterly distasteful experience. It was the grown-up equivalent of a grumpy child saying ‘sor-ry’ rather disingenuously. Not that Smith (Jacqui) was disingenuous. She emphasised the word ‘sorry’ very effectively. She also pointed out that constituents had suffered as a result of the attention on her claiming for pornographic films, and for her not exercising sufficient discretion on her living arrangements. At least the parliamentary commissioner for standards had “dismissed the usually repeated newspaper claims”. She may have been wearing black, but it wasn’t clear what Smith (Jacqui) was mourning.
If she loses her seat at the next general election, when the constituents get the chance to send a message on whether they think she’s let them down, this could be the defining final moment of her parliamentary career. The humiliating and embarrassing apology to the Commons should serve as a cautionary tale for the young and ambitious Chloe.
More strikingly, their fates reflected those of their parties in these changing times. It felt as if Smith (Labour), tired, frustrated, dragged down yet as defiant as she could be, summed up her party’s fortunes. The contrast with Smith (Chloe) couldn’t have been greater. No one has ever embodied the bright future ahead of her more than this young stripling. You don’t have to be a political analyst to work out what this means for her party. Labour MPs might have tried to ignore it, but it was one-way traffic in the Commons today.