A week may be a long time in politics, but 40 years, it would seem, is nothing at all. In 2012, during the heart of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, the National Theatre premiered James Graham’s new play on politics, compromise, and the idiosyncratic madhouse that is the House of Commons. Clearly, he felt the precarious Labour government of 1974-1979, for which each day was a struggle for survival, had something to teach us in the new 21st-century world of coalitions. Today, the Tories seem unstoppable and the Lib Dems close to extinction (although their victory this week in the Richmond by-election is a triumph), but the observations and lessons of This House remain eerily relevant to the political landscape of Brexit, Corbyn and UKIP.
Set deep in the “engine room” of Parliament, in the offices of the whips, This House leads us through a political era from the perspective of the unnoticed stagehands. The whips, with their meticulous lists of MPs and obsessive grasp of political maths, turn out to be just as important to the running of the country as the lofty cabinet ministers. Their machinations run from devious to comic, as they drag MPs from their sick-beds and co-opt military helicopters to get them to key votes. But beneath it all is a serious point: politics is about people. One of the whips remarks wryly that parliament would work much better if it weren’t for the people, but the play shows that the House of Commons is not a machine, but a living organism consisting of 650 individuals. Those individuals sometimes get sick or rebel against their party leaders, but they also show a tremendous ability to work together and, in the words of the play, “muddle through”.
And it is the job of the whips to muddle them through in the right direction. Trading on gossip, bribes, blackmail and some colourful swearing, both sides wage war over errant members and the “odds and sods” of minority parties who have the power to make or break a government. Stefan Rhodri and Nathaniel Parker star as the rival Labour and Tory deputy whips, bloody-minded and shrewd but nonetheless believers that the honour and integrity of the office surpasses party allegiances. Lauren O’Neil is refreshing as the down-to-earth Ann Taylor who brings some variety to the rowdy boys’ club, while Ed Hughes is comically ernest as the newcomer Tory Fred Silvester. Jeremy Herrin’s production, beautifully staged on a set by Rae Smith which incorporates the audience, pits the prestige of Britain’s great institutions against the messy reality of what it takes to get things done.
What Britain lacks in a written constitution it makes up for in an intricate web of “traditions”, “understandings” and “gentlemen’s agreements” that support the weight of modern politics. When these pacts – such as the unofficial custom of “pairing” absentee MPs who can’t make it in – break down, chaos ensues. Graham strips away the pomp and ceremony of the centuries-old British Parliament, showcasing the personal and bizarre. MPs must be physically present to vote, so when one member realises he’s about to miss a deadline, he sprints to make it and gets stuck in the closing door, leading to a debate about what “in the room” actually means. The result is that the vote is carried: 22 to 22 and three-quarters.
Although a revolving cast of over thirty MPs come under the stern gaze of the whips, there are are some standout cameos. Sarah Woodward shines as the rebel Labour MP Audrey Wise, a proto-Corbynite more concerned with her “principles” than in supporting her haemorrhaging party. Orlando Wells’ macabre ramblings as John Stonehouse, who infamously attempted to fake his own death, are priceless, and the staging of his supposed-suicide is a moment of tragicomic genius. And even the notorious dog-strangler Michael Heseltine makes an appearance (Matthew Pidgeon), brandishing the ceremonial mace during a heated dispute about protocol.
But there is a darkness to the production too. Over the course of the limping Labour government, nineteen MPs died in office – a fact that is reduced to frustration over dwindling numbers until it becomes too appalling to ignore. Though for the most part fast-paced and almost manic (set to the soundtrack of a live rock-band up in the Commons gallery), This House can also handle poignancy. In a moment of aisle-crossing chivalry, we see one MP offer to put his job on the line for the sake of his own code of honour. Rose-tinted? Maybe, but sometimes we need a reminder that our MPs are human.
We all know how the play must end: a vote of no confidence for Jim Callaghan’s government four and a half years into a five-year term, ousting Labour by 311 to 310. This House plays with speculations about the single vote that could have swung it, but the point is academic – if not for the no confidence vote, Callaghan would have been forced to call a general election later that year anyway, which he would certainly have lost. By that point, Margaret Thatcher was destined to be prime minister.
But if the play is ostensibly about the past, it is impossible to watch without considering the present. In today’s political climate, in which Brexit has torn a rift through British politics and populism is rising, we need the deal-makers behind the scenes more than ever, those who see their opponents as dignified rivals rather than mortal enemies. In the programme, Nick Clegg writes: “Westminster does not look kindly on compromise; every compromise is soon branded a betrayal in a system which rewards tribal loyalty”. He would know better than anyone, but This House shows that compromise, however despised, is crucial. And that is just as true now as in 1974.
This House is showing At the Garrick Theatre, London until 25 February 2017.