At a time when our political parties could only be more adversarial if they started dropping cartoon anvils on one another, This House offers a fascinating and historical insight into a comparatively chummy parliament still ticking along with some sense of post-war unity.
Charting the travails of the Labour government of 1974-79 (preceding Thatcher’s reign), James Graham’s engrossing comedy dives deep into the unglamorous minutiae of the party’s frantic strategising, their efforts to sway minority MPs during a precipitous hung parliament, and to defend from the looming threat of a no confidence vote by the freshly ousted and bruised Tories.
Sharply scripted and performed with blistering wit, the political drama plays out in the opposing offices of both parties’ chief whips, set on either side of the Garrick Theatre’s stage. It’s the small rituals of the Commons, however, that bring such immense flavour to what could otherwise have been a stuffy play.
With echoes of The Thick of It, This House packs in a huge amount of entertaining detail from this storied era of politics, from Labour’s breaking of the gentleman’s agreement to pair off sick MPs who cannot make a vote, to an enraged Heseltine brandishing the House of Commons ceremonial mace.
That it all actually took place is as darkly comic as what’s happening on stage, and by the time the desperate Labour whips are frantically wheeling in sick and dying members to vote on critical bills, the very concept of government begins to seem absurd and unworkable.
In looking into parliament’s fractious past, Graham shines a light on our even more fractious present. Tory governments eventually fail, he writes, because they feel entitled to power, while Labour governments fail because they don’t. The opposing whips bear a sporting respect for one another, and within them both is a desire for a different kind of politics that, forty years later, still hasn’t arrived.