The two most thrilling reactions for MPs – as I understand it – are 1) a dense, party-wide Hear, Hear! which carries the speaker on the crest of approval. And 2) a sudden, still, congregational silence in the great chamber. In this version, the packed Commons holds its breath. Every listener is caught by the throat.
1) is hard, and rarer as the years have passed, but 2) is relatively easy. It is prompted by some “horrific incident” or “terrible tragedy” and strikes every person present into pious silence.
The Commons has got wise to it now, and the body count is rising with every passing PMQs. The signal that the trick is being played again is usually a name, a Christian name (Sh! Sh! the monitors go), then the fact of a child, a victim, a death.
Today, with names and details, we had a stillbirth, a death by dogs, three suicides and an air pollution fatality. Thirty-one deaths a day by breast cancer were referenced, though not by name (that’ll be next: “We shall never forget them.”).
The temptation, which the Tory Member didn’t successfully resist, is to dally in the spotlight. It’s a very fine line. One extra sentence and you look like you’re making a meal of it, fine dining in the sacred silence.
Better would be not to do it all; to find another way to demonstrate that politicians are human, that they share our concerns.
They might, for instance, demand more houses be built, get young people into mortgages, reform the NHS – all the things that Liam Fox asked for in “a small business test” so that “every white van man and white coat technician would regard the Conservative party as their natural home.” We may have to leave that for the next generation and a Conservative party of 100 MPs.
Keir Starmer did better than usual by applying some sort of forensic pressure on Zahawi’s sacking. How could the Prime Minister not know there was a scandal brewing? It had been in The Independent, in The Observer, in the Financial Times. “Or was he just too” (wait for it) “incurious?”
Rishi “Incurious” Sunak (the name’s not going to stick) stood by the process he followed, as had been demanded by Keir and others, and he was able to come back with a very decent wallop when accused of letting Dominic Raab off the twenty-four accusations of bullying.
“If he’s so concerned!” the PM began and singed him with Rosie Duffield’s assertion that being in the Labour party was “like being in an abusive relationship.” He rather let himself down with, “If he can’t be trusted to stand up for women how can he be trusted to stand up for Britain?” But his backbenches picked up the cue and gave it their all. That great roar – was it of support, or of relief?
Nevertheless, it should be noted that vitality is fading visibly from the Commons. The benches fill up late and empty early. The cross benches near the front door had a total of fifteen Members in them; and well before the end of the session, backbenchers left to go about their more important business.
When the action drains from Parliament it ends up on the street. No one, except the worst of us (in which I don’t include myself) wants that.