If you saw a report that the House of Commons had appointed a new chaplain to say prayers at the start of its business every day, you would probably imagine a venerable, elderly clergyman straight out of Anglican central casting.
The reality is rather different: the new chaplain is young and black and she's a woman, a formidably fluent woman, in fact, called Rose Hudson-Wilkin, who was born in Jamaica and is already a chaplain to the Queen. She is also strongly tipped to become a bishop if, as expected, the Church of England allows women to do so in four or five years’ time.
The appointment, which has been condemned by some critics at Westminster as mere “tokenism”, was made by the speaker of the Commons, John Bercow. He was under fire himself last week from a Conservative MP, Simon Burns, who angrily dismissed him as a “stupid, sanctimonious dwarf”, a reference to the fact that Bercow is not very tall.
None other than Ian Paisley junior promptly defended the speaker but Bercow himself was unperturbed. He forecast, quite correctly, that Hansard, the official record of debates, would ignore the insult. Instead, it simply put “interruption” in brackets, a classic example of how you need to be on the spot in the Commons to know what is really going on.
“Interruption” does not begin to describe the fury with which trade unions have reacted to the news that the coalition cabinet is asking government departments to find ways of cutting spending by up to 40%. A few sectors, notably health, are protected from cuts but the armed forces and the police will be obliged to reduce their budgets. Sir Hugh Orde, who used to run the Police Service of Northern Ireland, is now the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers. He has been warning the public that the number of police on the beat will have to be cut back.
As many as 3,000 people in the police force are engaged on anti-terrorism work and John Yates, the outspoken Scotland Yard chief who handled the cash-for-honours enquiry, said last week that cutbacks in budgets would increase the risk of more al-Qa'ida attacks. His claim was dismissed as “alarmist” by the government but Wednesday is the fifth anniversary of the London tube and bus bombings and Prime Minister David Cameron knows that his judgment will be at stake if it turns out that any future attack could have been prevented but for lack of police resources.
The budget for anti-terrorist work in London is to be reduced by about £83m. By a strange coincidence that is only a few million more than Cameron has agreed to spend on a referendum next year on whether or not to change the voting system for MPs from first-past-the-post to a form of proportional representation known as ‘AV', short for the alternative vote.
Cameron's deputy, Nick Clegg, is delighted by the news. AV is nothing like as genuinely proportional in its results as the PR systems used in both Northern Ireland Assembly or Republic of Ireland general elections, but it should give his Liberal Democrat party a few more seats and could, in time, lead to coalitions being as permanent a feature of the parliamentary landscape in the UK as they have long been in the Republic. But changing voting systems is controversial. Opinion polls suggest that UK voters may well support AV but many Conservative MPs are sceptical. They regret that Cameron gave in to Clegg's pleas and they are hoping that they can successfully campaign against the change. There has not been a referendum in the UK since 1975, when voters confirmed membership of what is now the EU, and the outcome of the vote on AV is extremely unpredictable.
Cameron is also planning to reduce the number of MPs and to try to adjust the present bias against his party which makes it much easier for Labour than the Conservatives to obtain a majority of MPs in the Commons with a relatively small margin of victory in terms of total votes cast.
Nobody knows exactly how AV would change the make-up of the Commons but some experts say that back in 1997 the AV system would have added more than 100 seats to Tony Blair's massive election triumph.