We have have been promised a Conservative government with a radical beating heart.
A condition so unusual that the prime minister chose to reaffirm it on Monday morning at a GP surgery in the Midlands. Never hurts to be near a defibrillator. The goodwill stretched on to the afternoon. More or less. On the Conservative benches, there was at least a veneer of bonhomie.
George Osborne never mustered more than a scowl during parliament’s first formality of electing the Speaker, while Michael Gove, the former chief whip and architect of the graceless, failed Tory coup to oust John Bercow on the last day of the previous parliament, was nowhere to be seen – that afternoon TV habit is hard to break. Elsewhere on the Conservative benches, there was at least a veneer of bonhomie. David Cameron had told his troops that it was bad form to kick a chap when he is down – do as I say, not as I do – and the Bercow haters, of whom there are many, duly kept quiet and the Speaker was re-elected unopposed.
By far the tensest part of the proceedings for most MPs was finding somewhere to sit. The first day of a new parliament is something of a free-for-all with opposition backbenchers able to sit where they like. Depending on how arsey they are prepared to be. There had been rumours the SNP was going to push things to the wire by stealing Dennis Skinner’s prime slot on the awkward squad front bench. Either its MPs bottled it or Skinner faced them down. Instead, he found himself sitting next to the ponytailed new SNP MP Chris Law. They did not have anything to say to one another.
There were some unusual alliances. The 20-year old SNP MP, Mhairi Black, found herself sitting next to Labour’s Diane Abbott, in the second row directly behind Harriet Harman, the acting Labour leader. They did appear to have plenty to say to each other and were acting like old mates. Perhaps Diane is recruiting for This Week. Three of the new “best of breed” Labour intake – Stephen Kinnock, Tulip Siddiq and Keir Starmer – were joined at the hip on the bench hereafter renamed the beautiful bench. Of Nick Clegg and Tim Farron, there was no sign.
Gerald Kaufman took his place as the Father of the House, an honorific granted to Westminster’s longest-serving MP, and parliament awaited the arrival of Black Rod to summon MPs to the Lords to hear the Queen’s ‘hi everyone, sorry I can’t be here in person as am having a nap, but could you get on with things and elect a Speaker’ message. Only those who could be absolutely certain that no one would nick their seats while they were out took him up on the offer. Everyone else stayed put.
On their return, Jacob Rees-Mogg, a man not quite as fogeyish as he would like to be perceived, proposed the re-election of a Speaker whom he described as “a great moderniser”. However, traditions still have to be observed and Bercow allowed himself to be taken against his will to the chair. “You’re supposed to be dragged,” shouted a lone Tory. Call it Cameron’s first backbench revolt.
There followed speeches of various graciousness and wit. Cameron aspired to both, but couldn’t quite hack it. Even in elastic-sided “downwithdakidz” Chelsea boots, the prime minister has a way to go on sounding convincing as the one-nation voice. Harman got in a sharp dig at the patriarchy by reminding everyone that she was the Mother of the House but none of the men paid much attention. Alastair Carmichael managed to be both touching and poignant by calling himself “one of the elite cadre of Lib Dem MPs”. Close your eyes and “we, we happy few, we band of brothers” came to mind. There are no female Lib Dems left.
The prize for misjudgement went to the SNP’s Angus Robertson, who went out of his way to remind the Tories that his party would oppose austerity at every turn and would vote against Trident. It was a speech better suited to another day. It was also a speech that laid down a marker. “If you didn’t hate me already, Cameron,” Robertson implied, “Then you must do now. And if you think this is bad, just wait for what I’ve got in store over the next five years.” Welcome back, everyone.
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