“We need you all to go back,” were the first words that greeted the 56 SNP MPs as they gathered outside the Commons for their first day in Westminster.
They may only have been said by a photographer wanting a better shot but, even so, it could have been better phrased.
Nicola Sturgeon also didn’t look too thrilled when another snapper shouted: “Can you wave, love?” – no one calls Nicola “Love” – but she obliged anyway. This was a day the SNP were determined to enjoy and no one was going to spoil it. The big political battles could be saved for later.
There was a brief flurry of interest when it looked like Alex Salmond wasn’t going to turn up, but at the last minute he arrived red-faced and panting. “Held up at Heathrow,” he said later. “Typical. One of my last acts as Scottish first minister was to set up a daily flight from Aberdeen to London City, but I didn’t take it as I didn’t fancy getting up at five.” The delay wasn’t doing much for the personal comfort of Chris “the pony-tail is definitely staying” Law. He had dressed in a thick tweed three-piece suit on one of the hottest days of the year; he’s going to have to get used to the change in weather.
Inside the Commons, the new Tory MPs – those that had managed to find their way to the right place – were getting an equally warm reception from the first meeting of the 1922 committee. As, unusually, was the prime minister. With the Lib Dems now out the way, David Cameron is going to find it far harder to fob off the right wing of the Conservative party – many of whom are among the loudest voices in the 1922 committee – about the limitations of coalition government. “We will be raising certain matters with the prime minister,” said a senior Tory. “But not today.”
It was, instead, a day for rejoicing. No one had been expecting to win an outright majority and the mutual hugging of old friends – handshakes for newbies – was more than just a polite formality. This was the euphoria of a party that still couldn’t quite believe its luck. As close to the Tory party gets to a genuine knees-up. Even the elusive Grant Shapps was there. “We get to meet at last,” I said, shaking his hand. Grant actually looked pleased to see me. “Just email me any time you want to talk,” he said. A week is an even longer time in politics than I thought.
Dave, too, was in chilled out mood. Not surrounded by minders and spads, he looked and sounded almost human. “I’m going to sue YouGov for giving me stomach ulcers,” he laughed. Was he worried about the 1922 committee? “Not today.”
This was the “Ask Me Anything, Dave” we had been promised on the campaign trail but had never seen and he was already 10 minutes late. No one was too bothered, as the party had started without him. The noise and cheering from inside the committee suggested things had already become fairly rowdy. Are you going to put an end to Punch and Judy politics now? Dave was asked. “It doesn’t sound like it,” he replied.
Twenty minutes was all that Sir Nicholas Soames could manage. “It’s too hot in there,” he grumbled. “I’m off for a cocktail.” The rest stayed to the end to cheer, bang tables, turn over chairs and listen to Dave repeat his gag about kicking Mark Reckless’s fat arse out of here. Dave was on thin ice here – pots and kettles and all that – but no one was in the mood to quibble. Kelly Tolhurst’s victory in Rochester has already marked her out out as a party favourite.
“Orgiastic,” said Boris Johnson, when asked to describe the mood in the room. This was close to a “no comment” for Boris as orgiastic is the minimum he expects of any occasion. Perhaps he was weighed down by the responsibility of his new appointment as a member of Cameron’s political cabinet. It is the non-job to end all non-jobs. Laden with status and with no responsibility. And thus perfect for Boris.
Seven hours later, the Parliamentary Labour party met in the same room. It wasn’t such a jolly occasion, though it did rise above a wake at times. There was some cheering for new MPs, some laughter and I thought I heard a “Hell, yes” from outside. Though I couldn’t swear to that, as Ed has decamped to Ibiza.
Most of the MPs seemed keen to avoid talking to the media on the way in. John Prescott became fascinated by his sandwich, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper seemed to magic their way in without anyone noticing and Liz Kendall just turned up late. Having gone through the various options for the leadership contest, the acting leader, Harriet Harman, called for “soul-searching, not blood letting”. That plea came an hour too late for David Miliband.
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