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Thursday, 20 December 2018

Some thoughts on StupidGate

Yesterday's news was dominated by the question of whether Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn did or did not mutter the words "stupid woman" during PMQs.

The alleged insult was not picked up my any microphones in the chamber, and the only video evidence has proved inconclusive with various lip-reading experts failing to conclude whether he said "stupid woman" or "stupid people".

Some very quick thoughts in response to this:

* Politics - and especially PMQs - has now become, for better or for worse, a media circus.

* Whatever Corbyn said, he should simply apologise to the House for using the word "stupid". Unfortunately so far the Labour leader has handled it poorly and allowed himself to become the story. This is a huge mistake. No-one in the media was interested in reporting on Theresa May's petulant and rather juvenile "pantomime" conduct during PMQs once there was a convenient distraction. Corbyn has provided far too many of these opportunities to his opponents.

* The media have rather strange, but well-established, priorities. Jeremy Corbyn will have known this. The media will take any opportunity to have the Labour leader at the centre of any story, so why given them ammunition?

* The Conservative Party outrage is highly hypocritical. The intemperate demands made of the speaker to act immediately were as infantile as they were irregular. Any casual watcher of BBC Parliament understands that evidence must be reviewed. But it was breathtaking that people so concerned about a perceived slight that was heard by no-one seemed completely unconcerned about Nicholas Soames' highly audible "Go back to Skye" comment aimed at Ian Blackford only hours previously.

* The Speaker is clearly unable to intervene when he has not witnessed an incident and, when expert advice fails to provide clarification, must trust the word of the member. This should not surprise anyone with a modicum on knowledge of parliamentary procedure. Of the two incidents, the Speaker's failure to at least caution Nicholas Soames is of much greater concern. He heard Soames' words, as did others in the chamber, and yet did nothing.

* Andrea Leadsom's use of a point of order to re-open an old dispute with the Speaker was petty and unbefitting of someone allegedly leading the House. Her own continued smears against the Speaker, in which she publicly undermined him with allegations of partiality, are far more "unparliamentary" and damaging to democracy than anything Jeremy Corbyn may have said yesterday. (As an aside, her own pejorative comments on Theresa May's inability to have children were far more shameful than anything Jeremy Corbyn has to date said about the Prime Minister.)

* That parliamentary time was found to ask the Speaker to censure the Labour leader, when debates and votes on the future of the country's relationship with the EU are delayed, is an utter indictment of what passes for parliamentary democracy. This was Conservative opportunism in action; nothing more, nothing less.

* If this relative non-incident has confirmed one thing, it is that lip-reading is a very difficult art to master. It proved impossible for even the most experienced lip-readers to determine what the Labour leader said, which I think underlines the challenges faced by those dependent on being able to lip-read. The confusion and uncertainty many of us felt when attempting to decipher what Corbyn had actually said is a daily reality for many deaf people.

* The undeniable reality is that the House of Commons needs to clean up its act, that PMQs has been reduced to a pantomime and "unparliamentary" behaviour tolerated far more than it should be. Instead of the undignified sight of Tories turning on the Speaker for upholding parliamentary procedure, perhaps efforts would be better spent on overdue reform of both procedure and the chamber itself?


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