Our glorious, fragile parliament – and its hungry, scurrying mice
The Palace of Westminster is crumbling and won’t, be fixed unless MPs find a temporary home elsewhere
Big Ben, being cleaned Photo: PA
By Michael Fabricant
Daily Telegraph, 4 Mar 2015
Around 1,220 years ago, Lichfield was the ecclesiastical capital of Mercia with an Archbishop to rival those of Canterbury and York. Could its time of national importance soon resume?
John Bercow, the Commons Speaker, this week warned that the Palace of Westminster is crumbling away and might have to be ‘abandoned?, either temporarily or permanently. The price tag for repairs could be as much as ?3 billion. Some people might know, especially since the screening of Michael Cockerell?s ‘Inside the Commons? documentary, that I don?t always agree with Mr Bercow. But on this occasion, I do.
So much so, that I?d like to invite him and the rest of my Parliamentary colleagues to Lichfield for an extended period.
If we continue to use the Palace of Westminster ? that incredible, iconic, fragile, faux-Gothic building ? and simply carry out repairs piecemeal, the bill to the public purse will be almost double over the prolonged period of years. Is that seriously more palatable? No, we must find a temporary home elsewhere.
Some have suggested that if Parliament really is going to cost ?3 billion to repair why not leave for good, let the building become a museum, and move to a modern, European-style building like the Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly.
Well, I like Westminster. Combative at times, yes. But contemplative and thoughtful too. History keeps us grounded to our founding democratic principles. That?s not the same as being anchored to the past.
It is a huge privilege to work in a building of such history and beauty. But I have witnessed the Palace?s decay too.
I once hosted an event for MPs and Peers with the US Military Attach?, a Rear-Admiral of the US Navy. While he was updating us on UK-US military coordination, giggles began at the back of the room, followed by a shrill scream. I feared a Jihadist attack. The admiral stopped speaking, and an embassy security man gave curt instructions into his wrist ?. and then all was revealed. Three little mice were scurrying around, enjoying the crumbs of our nibbles.
On another occasion, while dining the Chairman of my local Conservative Association, I looked down not to see the brown eyes of Isis, the Earl of Grantham?s late Labrador from Downton Abbey, but that of a particularly well-fed rodent.
And when it rains, it is common for the lights in the Palace to flicker and metal waste paper bins be swiftly deployed to protect carpets and intercept leaks from the ceiling above.
Well done to the House staff who instantly spring into action on these occasions. But there is little they can do to resist the remorseless tide as the entire structure tilts and sinks, Titanic-like, into the Thames from which the land was originally claimed. Even Big Ben — or the Elizabeth Tower as it is now properly known — is leaning and might eventually emulate its rival in Pisa if we fail to act.
The Palace of Westminster is part of our national heritage and worth saving, even if the cost is eye-watering. There are few places where almost a thousand years of history is maintained in one building.
There simply is no other venue where people from all over our country can be rightly proud of our democratic heritage in the same way as they can in Parliament. We should all feel pride in that building and save it. To do nothing would be a national travesty. Yet decamp we must, so I invite my colleagues to make a temporary home in the City of Lichfield.
Part of the problem we have with politics at the moment is that it is seen as being too remote. London and Westminster appear too far from the lives of many and, for some, too elitist. Lichfield is in the middle of the country and more accessible to most than Westminster.
And there?s a ready-made and historic building available to use in Lichfield ? the 800 year-old ‘new? Cathedral. Parliamentary sessions will just have to fit in between services, that?s all. Last Sunday I attended a wonderful service to commemorate the founding of the original cathedral back in 650 by Saint Chad. The seats were arranged in rows facing each other ? just like the House of Commons. And that is no coincidence.
The reason we sit across from each other in Parliament is because the original House of Commons sat in what was the 12th Century Painted Chapel in Westminster where the pews eventually became the green benches.
Lichfield should host our our national Parliament for a while. And when it eventually returns to the Palace of Westminster, the Cathedral can then play host to a devolved and permanent English Parliament.
Michael Fabricant is Conservative MP for Lichfield