Hansard Does the Full Beachcomber

by Henry Farrell on April 1, 2010

Via “Gideon Rachman”:http://blogs.ft.com/rachmanblog/2010/03/mice-on-the-loose-in-parliament/, the House of Lords debates the mouse problem in Westminister Palace. It’s both wonderful and surreal.

bq. As for getting a cat, I answered a Question from the noble Lord, Lord Elton, last week on this matter. I was not aware that such a thing as a hypoallergenic cat existed-I do not know whether our cat at home is one of those. There are a number of reasons why it is not a good idea to have cats. First, they would ingest mouse poison when eating poisoned mice, which would not be very nice for them, and there would be nothing to keep them where they are needed or stop them walking around the House on desks in offices or on tables in restaurants and bars-and maybe even in the Chamber itself. Therefore, we have ruled out at this stage the possibility of acquiring a cat, or cats.

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I am well aware that there are still mice around. I saw one in the Bishops’ Bar only yesterday evening. I do not know whether it was the same one that I saw the day before or a different one; it is always difficult to tell the difference between the various mice that one sees. We believe that the problem is getting better. Cleaning is one of the measures we are taking, as I outlined in my original Answer. As I speak here this afternoon, the Bishops’ Bar and the Guest Room are being hoovered, so we can get rid of the food scraps from lunch. If you were a mouse, you would rather eat the crumbs of a smoked salmon sandwich than the bait. Therefore, we want to remove the crumbs as quickly as possible.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: Why should I and noble Lords trust the Executive to deal with mice when they cannot deal with the economy?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I do not actually deal with the economy. I am glad to say that that would be above my pay grade, whereas trying to deal with the mice is probably just about right for me.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I was in total ignorance that there was anything of the nature of a mouse helpline until this Question Time. Can the Chairman of Committees tell us what helplines there are for Members of the House on other issues that we do not know about?

I’m trying to imagine a similar conversation taking place, say, in the U.S. Senate, and failing completely.



Raghav 04.01.10 at 1:50 am

It reminds me of the epic House of Lords debate about spam:

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, can the Minister think of a name for the enormous amount of unsolicited ordinary mail we receive?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, when I have a moment I shall bend my mind to that question.


Raghav 04.01.10 at 2:00 am

In fact, the previous debate about corned beef tins is, if anything, better:

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Lord has asked me a Question about corned beef cans. I have been answering questions about them all my life and I regard them as one of my real areas of expertise.

There is a real problem about corned beef cans. They have a trapezoidal shape and a key kind of ring. The DTI has done much work on this issue in giving further instructions and also special coatings for the cans which enable the corned beef to be extracted more easily. . . .

These statistics on accidents are extremely fascinating; they prove that the British public can use practically anything in this world to hurt themselves with. It is understandable that there are an estimated 55 accidents a year from putty, while toothpaste accounts for 73. However, it is rather bizarre that 823 accidents are estimated to be the result of letters and envelopes. It is difficult to understand how they can be the cause of such serious plight. I agree with the noble Baroness that it would be helpful if people paid careful attention.

Baroness Strange: My Lords, does the Minister agree that sardine tins and anchovy tins are also very difficult to open with their tin-openers?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I think I will just agree with the noble Baroness on that question.


Nabakov 04.01.10 at 3:18 am

Well I suppose mice and luncheon meats makes a nice change from the old diet of badgers and buggery.

Likewise it’s also hard to to imagine this going on at the Justice Department.


Laurel 04.01.10 at 3:52 am

Socialism, my lords! We should let the market take care of the mice!


Dave Maier 04.01.10 at 3:55 am

If Lord Pilkington of Oxenford doesn’t sound at all like Francis Urquhart from House of Cards, including an exquisitely timed pause after the word “mice,” then I’ll be very disappointed. Pardon me, I mean most disappointed [/raised eyebrow].


mcd 04.01.10 at 5:27 am

Lord Pilkington would fit in just fine as a Senate Republican.

And the Chairman of Committees has Obama’s “pay grade” joke down pat.


JoB 04.01.10 at 7:22 am

I just new Oscar Wilde was still alive!


ejh 04.01.10 at 7:33 am

there would be nothing to keep them where they are needed or stop them walking around the House on desks in offices or on tables in restaurants and bars-and maybe even in the Chamber itself

So what.

Get a cat.


alex 04.01.10 at 7:51 am

Well done, ejh, for making this thread completely circular.


Zamfir 04.01.10 at 8:06 am

Weirdly enough, this is apparently not an april’s fool joke.


Phil Ruse 04.01.10 at 8:25 am

Vermin in Westminster? A bit harsh.


ajay 04.01.10 at 8:41 am

You missed out the punchline on the Mouse Helpline:

I invited Members of the House to telephone when they saw mice. The trouble is that when the person at the other end of the helpline goes to check this out, very often the mouse has gone elsewhere.

Hansard is excellent reading material, because of business like this. I think the high point was hit in 1994, with these PMQs:

Nursery (Official Visit)

Mr. Corbyn : To ask the Prime Minister what further plans he has to visit a children’s nursery.

The Prime Minister : I have no immediate plans to do so.

Milton Keynes

Mr. Butler : To ask the Prime Minister what plans he has to visit Milton Keynes.

The Prime Minister : I have no immediate plans to do so.

St. Winwaloe’s Day

Mr. Flynn : To ask the Prime Minister what plans Her Majesty’s Government have to celebrate St. Winwaloe’s day.

The Prime Minister : None.


ajay 04.01.10 at 8:46 am

2: the corned beef debate is also great. Non-Brits may not be aware that Lord Sainsbury used to be chairman of the Sainsbury’s supermarket chain, hence his experience with corned beef.


Zamfir 04.01.10 at 9:40 am

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: My Lords, is the Minister aware that if, having taken off one end of the corned beef can with the twisty thing provided—assuming that you have not lost it—you then take a common, ordinary, household tin-opener and take off the other end, it is very easy to push the corned beef out of the tin without any danger to yourself?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: Yes, my Lords, I was aware of that, and I am very glad that that essential piece of information is passed round for the benefit of this House.


ajay 04.01.10 at 9:47 am

…the [can] which is used for corned beef is particularly disliked by people, mainly because they lose the keys and then attack the corned beef can with whatever is at hand.

A wonderful image of Fawlty-style frustration and rage. Whatever is at hand – breadknife, lump hammer, hacksaw, butcher’s cleaver, walking stick, Zulu knobkerrie, cavalry sabre, improvised explosive device…


Alex 04.01.10 at 10:19 am

Is anyone else slightly surprised that the Palace of Westminster doesn’t have a cat?


ajay 04.01.10 at 10:23 am

There isn’t currently a Downing Street cat either, according to Wikipedia. The most recent incumbent, Sybil, died last year and has not been replaced.


alex 04.01.10 at 10:30 am

There’s a job for Mandelson after the election, after all…


Richard J 04.01.10 at 10:47 am

The story of HMS Belfast’s cat is not, sadly, a happy one.


Alex 04.01.10 at 10:55 am

I take it the Cabinet Office is not minded to disburse any public moneys on mousing, or to take any action that might bind a future minister, in advance of the General Election.


jdw 04.01.10 at 11:09 am

Alex, I think if you strike a definite article here and there, and change some singulars to plural, you get a better polish: “I take it Cabinet Office are not of a mind…” and throw in a couple of “her majesty’s”.


Wesley Osam 04.01.10 at 11:39 am

If this occurred in Congress, the Democrats would sort of want a cat but would be afraid to actually get one. The Republicans would refuse to cooperate while maintaining the mice were the Democrats’ fault.

Eventually the Republicans would be convinced to come up with their own solution, which would be to acquire a hamster. The Democrats would then adopt the hamster idea, at which point the Republicans would pretend they were never in favor of hamsters in the first place.

At this point President Obama would make a speech and convene a summit. The Republicans would begin to insinuate that Democrats were also responsible for crickets. The public would start thinking that maybe the mice and crickets would go away if they just voted out all the incumbents. Finally, the Democrats, now desperate, would pass a bill to get a small dog or perhaps a ferret, prompting the Republicans to declare armageddon.


AntiAlias 04.01.10 at 12:41 pm

O merry Albion. In Spain that kind of debate would predictably result in conservatives accusing the Government of disloyalty towards Spain and criminal collaboration with mice-loving terrorists, socialists spending the next month trying to re-phrase a proposal that shall not offend the mice-loving sector of their electors, and nationalists trying to amend the Constitution to allow for region-specific anti-vermin measures.

Not having Lords in the proper sense kind of takes some of the flavour away, got to admit.


jdw 04.01.10 at 1:14 pm

flavour, yes. But can we so quickly let our attention slip from the crucial advances in transcranial magnetic stimulation to impede neural activity, just because it is not flavourful?! Or the Bloggingheads sociology? I tell you my friend, when I am finished with my “Sociology of the Painfully Obvious: A Statistical Approach” in five volumes, and you try to read it, or watch the 36-hour Bloggingheads of it, you will wish you had never been born, that’s how turgid it will be. But scientific progress is like that. We must suck it up. The future of scientology depends on it.


Red 04.01.10 at 1:18 pm

I cannot imagine such a debate in the U.S. Senate either. Thank God our senators are solely devoted to the fight against death panels, marxist Kenyans (or Kenyan marxists), and the tyranny of having health insurance.


sg 04.01.10 at 1:36 pm

I just love this:

Cleaning is one of the measures we are taking, as I outlined in my original Answer

Yes, the ruling powers of the UK have discovered this magic thing called “cleaning.” what next, plumbing?


rea 04.01.10 at 1:57 pm

The House of Lords has a special bar, just for bishops?


JoB 04.01.10 at 2:02 pm

By the way, is that by any chance Lord Ben Elton?


Richard J 04.01.10 at 2:19 pm

No relation. Ben Elton’s uncle, of course, was Geoffrey Elton.


JoB 04.01.10 at 2:39 pm

What’s so of course in Geoffrey Elton being Ben Elton’s uncle? It seems awfully inconvenient to be related to Ben Elton. Most certainly when Ben Elton is not related to Lord Elton, at all.


Richard J 04.01.10 at 3:00 pm

Sorry, I should remember that the ironic ‘of course’ doesn’t really come across in quasi-anonymous blog comments…


alex 04.01.10 at 3:02 pm

And JoB is Belgian.


roac 04.01.10 at 4:11 pm

On reading no. 12, I had to look up St. Winwaloe. He was Breton, and hence an honorary Cornishman (why the not-obviously-Cornish Hon. Mr. Flynn was a fan does not appear). He was one of the phallic saints, as befits the son of Gwen the Triple-Breasted.

All of this really is found in Wikipedia (though in view of the date I suppose it is possible that the entry will disappear at the stroke of midnight). The Monty Python flavor is pervasive not sporadic.


roac 04.01.10 at 4:18 pm

P.S.: Young girls in search of true love stick pins in the feet of St. Winwaloe’s effigy. (Not clear if they still do or if that is the anthropological present in action.)


TheSophist 04.01.10 at 5:47 pm

…and here was I thinking that he was the patron Saint of explorers…

St. Wimwaloe, St. Wimwaloe
In the jungle, the mighty jungle
The lion sleeps tonight…


AntiAlias 04.01.10 at 7:41 pm

@ Red 25:

Thank God our senators are solely devoted to the fight against death panels, marxist Kenyans (or Kenyan marxists)

Kenyans or Keynesians, who’s redder?

(no pun intended, Red)


garymar 04.02.10 at 1:00 am

I love this thread. I love reading in-group humor (or in this case, humour) that sits just beyond the edge of my sphere of comprehension. Pushing the envelope, indeed!

This group of commenters is (or in this case, are) to be commended.


alanb 04.02.10 at 3:20 am

As the person who put Gideon on to this piece of surreal genius in the first place (because someone else drew my attention to it, and I can’t remember who it was, or I’d h/t her or him), I can reveal that I personally initiated a prototype of this conversation at my Oxford college 20 years ago, mandating the relevant Junior Common Room officer to investigate the possibility of acquiring a College Cat*, not realising that I was perpetuating an obsession so enduring that it would pop up in the deliberations of our ruling elite so far into the future.

*In the end the idea died, not least because someone with a long memory claimed that the previous College Cat had been despatched by one of the senior academics with a spade when it looked a bit peaky. No-one could verify this fact, but it won the day.


ejh 04.02.10 at 4:17 am

Who was the senior academic concerned?


Thomas 04.02.10 at 4:43 am


As I’m sure you know, the questions for Prime Minister’s Question time, which are submitted in writing, are *supposed* to be opaque, so the PM can’t guess what the follow-up question, not submitted in advance, will be. At least these ones are interestingly opaque.


JoB 04.02.10 at 7:53 am

37 – come again?


Tim Worstall 04.02.10 at 1:17 pm

Or the 1988 Copyright Bill…which gave perpetual royalties to Great Ormond St Hospital from Peter Pan.


” Lord Ardwick

My Lords, before my noble friend sits down perhaps I may ask him a question which is rather more personal than we are used to in this Chamber. Was he one of those cynical little boys who during the performance of Peter Pan refused to clap and so proclaim his belief in fairies and would have allowed poor Tinkerbell to expire? That is what he is doing this afternoon.

§ Lord Willis

My Lords, I must tell my noble friend that one of my greatest friends was Tinkerbell.


roac 04.02.10 at 2:04 pm

Looking at this again, I was struck by the assumption that the Beachcomber reference would be generally understood (in the UK at least) all these decades after J.B. Morton stopped writing. Checking Wikipedia, however, I see that the Express revived the pen name some time back after a hiatus. Are Foulenough, Cocklecarrot et al. still appearing? Are they still funny, or is this another zombie like “Peanuts”?


alanb 04.02.10 at 2:59 pm

@ejh 39: since the story was unverified, I had better not say. But now I think about it, the JCR official mandated to do a cat feasibility study was Matt Cavanagh, now a special adviser at Downing Street. The Lords should get him in without delay.


ejh 04.02.10 at 3:49 pm

since the story was unverified, I had better not say

Just as well: I was going to propose that somebody despatch them with a spade.


praisegod barebones 04.02.10 at 8:45 pm

‘But now I think about it, the JCR official mandated to do a cat feasibility study was Matt Cavanagh, now a special adviser at Downing Street. ‘

Wouldn’t the cat have eaten the college tortoise?


Mrs Tilton 04.03.10 at 1:03 pm

rea @27,

…a special bar, just for bishops?

Yes. It was first used during the Cromwellian Protectorate. Made of wrought iron, black, about a metre long; heavy knob at one end. They stopped using it after the Restoration, when bishops came back into fashion. It’s pretty much just a ceremonial prop now.


AntiAlias 04.03.10 at 7:25 pm

Damn! Why, oh why these never came into fashion south of the Pyrenees? Time for some revival already – they’d be all the rage! Can I get one on the internets?


Major Alfonso 04.05.10 at 12:57 am

This reminds me of the Capitol in the ruined Washington of the film Logan’s Run, which is over run with cats. Here’s a picture of “The Old Man” (Peter Ustinov) who lives in the old Senate Chamber with Senator Felix Gato. The Old Man lives in the Senate because his previous residences didn’t have enough mice for the cats. Seems like the Lords should give him a bell.


Andrew Rollason 04.08.10 at 5:41 am

There is such a position as the “Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office” which was last occupied by the cat Sybil; she was the tenth such moggy to tread the halls of power.

Both of the previous Number 10 cats, Humphrey and Wilberforce before him, lasted longer than any other person at either Numbers 10 or 11.


Comments on this entry are closed.