Corbyn's Commons debut as Labour leader passes with a hush

Houses of Parliament

It wasn’t quite the time for a chat, indicated Jon Trickett with an apologetic smile as he hovered impatiently in the queue of the parliamentary cafe waiting for his coffee.

It was shortly after 1pm, after all, and the normally friendly MP for Hemsworth, now shadow minister for communities and local government, had a little over an hour to get to grips with his brief before leading the questions in the Commons chamber on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition, having been confirmed in his post barely 10 minutes earlier.

Just time, then, for a quick square of flapjack and another quick read of his speech, double spaced and in large, bold type, which he would unfold shortly afterwards on top of the dispatch box, any tiny wobble in his hands imperceptible.

It was that kind of day at Westminster – when the chance sightings in the corridors, and the wide beams or determined grimaces of Labour’s parliamentary members, revealed much more about the mood in the parliamentary Labour party than what was said in speeches to the chamber or interviews to journalists.

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s triumphant new leader, may have slipped into the chamber shortly before 3.30pm, for instance, as the business secretary, Sajid Javid, was preparing to introduce the trade union bill, but he opted to pass on the opportunity to make his first remarks to the House as leader of the opposition.

Much more telling was the reaction to his entrance, which was – contrary to unwritten Commons law on occasions like this – one of absolute silence. There were neither rapturous cheers from his own side – barely 20 MPs wanted him to become their leader, after all – nor mocking jeers from the Tories, who despite months to prepare for this haven’t yet worked out how best to tackle this foe like no other. These are not the same old politics, by any means.

Next to Corbyn on the frontbench was Angela Eagle, newly minted shadow business secretary, Diane Abbott, shadow international development secretary, and – wearing what appeared to be an identical tie to his old friend and new boss – John McDonnell, Labour’s new shadow chancellor of the exchequer. The ties, since you ask, were both deep red.

But where were Labour’s other familiar faces? With Caroline Flint, the former shadow energy minister, exiting discreetly before the debate began, most of the party’s big beasts – or those who had spurned offers of a place in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet – were highly conspicuous by their absence.

Gradually, one or two drifted in – Tristram Hunt, not the shadow education minister, to the far end of the second row; Yvette Cooper, not the shadow home secretary and definitely not Labour’s first elected female leader, to the very, very rear, just about as far away from her new party leader as it was possible to sit.

Earlier, Corbyn had addressed staff at Labour HQ, where he was presumably able to verify the truth or otherwise of rumours they had been dressing in black since Saturday’s result was announced.

That encounter may have felt like a warm bath, however, compared to the meeting of the parliamentary party on Sunday night. “There’s nothing more to say,” said an unsmiling Lord Mandelson as he made his way to the Gladstone room. “Is this the end?” asked a reporter. An incredulous shrug.

There was a determined grin from Ed Miliband. A clipped smile from Dan Jarvis, one-time cherished hope of the party’s centre-right. Cooper and Abbott walked in side by side, though it wasn’t at all clear whether they were together, or merely proximate.

And at two minutes past six, trailed by a cloud of members of his new team, Corbyn swept along the committee room corridor towards the Gladstone room. The tie was long gone, the crisp shirt unbuttoned to reveal an inch or two of vest.

The door opened and swung shut, from behind which could be heard a murmur, nothing more.

It has been a fruitful few days for eavesdropping: a well-positioned Sky News reporter on Monday published a highly revealing account of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet reshuffle, gleaned through the strategic placement of a curious ear next to a closed door – which disclosed among other things that Eagle’s appointment as shadow first minister of state came in direct response to criticism over the lack of women in senior jobs.

But there was to be no repeat for the expectant crowd of reporters in the corridor, who had to settle for occasional smatterings of applause through the solid door, and the cries of “agonising loyalty!” from Cooper supporter Stephen Pound, who exited the meeting before its close.

At 7pm, they swept out, the smiles set perhaps just a little more firmly than before.

No, there had hardly been any hostile questions, insisted a Labour spokeswoman.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Esther Addley, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 15th September 2015 07.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010