Order, order, ye feckless right-honourable members, or face an icy bath in the murky Thames

Not for the first time in recent years, it has been mentioned in the media that the Palace of Westminster is in urgent need of repair and refurbishment. With the building apparently tottering under the Damocletian swords of asbestos contamination, timber weaknesses, crumbling limestone masonry and a leaking cast-iron roof, the cries for extensive and thorough rejuvenation have become more and more shrill; the Speaker, John Bercow, recently warned that unless something, anything, is done soon, the 650 MPs and 812 peers who currently inhabit Westminster will have to permanently relocate elsewhere in as little as 20 years. The evocative Gothic palace, a symbol of British democracy the world over, with its instantly-recognisable silhouette, would be stripped of all that makes it such a potent icon; even the bongs of Big Ben that herald the Six O’Clock News on Radio 4 would be blighted by diminished significance.
So why, you ask, all this hand-wringing and fannying about with debates on the problem? Why has nobody rolled up their sleeves and come up with a plan of action to save the palace from sinking into the turgid mire of dereliction? Well, I’ll tell you why. It’s the old, old problem: “Money, money, money, must be funny, in a rich man’s world…”
The government is currently spending £50 million every year, just to keep the building operational. And the predicted costs of the necessary refurbishment are even more eyeball-burning; if the work was carried out around parliamentary sittings, with the MPs and peers remaining in situ, it would take 32 years and cost £7.1 billion. The palace could be saved in just six years, though, and for about half the cost – but in order to allow the builders to work at such a breakneck rate, Parliament would have to completely vacate it, and set up shop somewhere else. And, that, of course, opens up a whole new quandary for our intermittently-esteemed lawmakers; where on Earth would they go?
Obviously, any temporary accommodation for the 1400-odd-strong parliament would have to be within easy reach of Number Ten, Whitehall and Buckingham Palace, which pretty much rules out everywhere outside of London. Anywhere further afield would swiftly generate unacceptably high travelling costs and expenses that the taxpayer would have to shoulder in addition to the repair bills for Westminster, so I can’t imagine that the suggestion by some Grauniad-types that Parliament decamp to Hull, where rented property is apparently as cheap as it gets in England, will be taken up.
Then there’s the problem of security. Answers on a postcard, please, for a building of adequate size and gravitas, in London, where one could install metal detectors, squads of police sniffer dogs, blast-proof concrete and steel barriers around the perimeter and a fast-flowing river, to enable easy escape by boat should the building come under siege on three sides by terrorists. The latter, natural and cost-free security feature is, according to the former Spitting Image scriptwriter-turned-historian John O’Farrell, among other sources, one reason why the site of the Palace of Westminster was selected for a royal palace in the first place, in the eleventh century. But the cost of adding any such features to another palatial building in the capital would probably, like the cost of transporting MPs and peers from a non-London-based site to the important governmental seats outside of Parliament itself, be prohibitively expensive. The fact is, there is almost nowhere in London as bomb-proof as the current Houses of Parliament – except for, maybe, the subterranean vaults underneath the Bank of England, which can’t really be turned over for the use of Parliament because they’re all full of bullion, which can’t be stored anywhere else, bringing us straight back, in a growling and hair-pulling frenzy of frustration, to square one.
It is, of course, entirely possible – and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it did actually come to pass – that the government could commission an entirely new building, complete with pre-added security measures, to house them for the six years that it would take, at the very least, to give Westminster the comprehensive refurbishment that it so desperately needs. Such an edifice would then almost certainly be retained in public hands for real or contrived government purposes, evoking memories of Sir Humphrey’s explanations in Yes Minister, of why various government buildings in London couldn’t be closed during Jim Hacker’s economy drive. If this materialised in real life, it would eliminate fears of inadequate security and spiralling travel expenses for MPs and peers, for sure, but it would still cost an absolute fortune in taxpayers’ money, and would leave an especially bitter aftertaste, coming straight on the back of half a decade of austerity and spending cuts. However, brand-spanking-new lodgings for the coterie of Right Honourable lords, ladies and gentlemen is not an unavoidable outcome, because I’ve got a better idea.
It is not that long since the papers were all huffing and puffing about the fact that we have, in the Royal Navy, one HMS Queen Elizabeth, an aircraft carrier devoid of aircraft. Though the ship was christened two-and-a-half years ago, she will not be formally commissioned until sometime next year, and even then she won’t be fully operational until 2020 at the very earliest. Until then, she is doomed to be something of an expensive white elephant, the butt of ridicule and a political egg to be thrown at the Chancellor and the Defence Secretary. But, to my mind, she is the ideal solution to the knotty conundrum of where to house the Mother of Parliaments while its permanent home is restored. People and political pundits moan often enough about parliamentary debates going on for far too long, with the important bits being swaddled in acres of flannelling and waffle, but I’m prepared to bet that if the MPs were made to hold their debates, speeches and Prime Minister’s Questions while standing on the ship’s flight deck, in all weathers, sessions would become immeasurably shorter and more focused on the matters in hand. The ship could be anchored as far up the Thames Estuary as its size would allow, enabling its boarders to remain close to the seats of the Queen, the Prime Minister and the civil service, and Black Rod and the Serjeant-at-Arms could use the ship’s guns to keep terrorists at bay. And instead of merely barring unruly MPs from the ad-hoc House of Commons, such deviants could be made to walk the plank for their misbehaviour. Certainly, this would assuage the gripes of some that parliamentary sessions in their present form are tedious, pallid and uncaptivating.
Such a solution would, I reckon, be the best outcome for everyone: the workmen would have the space to rebuild the Palace of Westminster in a reasonably short period of time, Parliament itself would remain in a secure location, close to the other key governmental sites in London, the Royal Navy would be spared the embarrassment of maintaining an aircraft carrier with no aircraft, and the public would be kept entertained by shorter, pithier parliamentary speeches and the threat of undignified punishment in cold Thames water for misdemeanours. And to save taxpayers from having to cough up all of the £3.5 billion that it would take to renovate an empty Westminster, the government could sell the rights to film the work in progress to Channel 4 for a special series of Country House Rescue. This would be perfection; all it would need to turn it into reality would be for the Admiral of the Fleet, the Chancellor and the CEO of Channel 4 to have a convivial meeting over lunch, in order to arrange the practicalities. Who says that the government, the Forces and the media have to be at loggerheads with one another all the time?

Houses of Parliament

Houses of Parliament

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