Weird times in Westminster. PMQs was downgraded today so that the evening news wouldn’t carry pictures of a remote House of Commons debating the referendum in a complacent and uncaring manner.
Passion is today’s watchword. Urgency too. And the personal touch. The party leaders are up north, right now, engaged in a three-legged race to lose the union. Possibly they’ll fail and save it instead. If so, it’ll be an accident.
Down here, MPs offered a show of unity. Unfortunately this created the very impression they were hoping to avoid: a crew of smug southern cronies chatting away on comfy leather upholstery, many hundreds of miles from the front line.
William Hague, leading for the Tories, insisted that a Yes vote would be ‘a tragic mistake.’ He several times stressed his Yorkshire background but overlooked the Caledonian derivation of his name.
Labour fielded its favourite Home Counties blue-stocking, Harriet Harman, whose aristocratic credentials have no rival in parliament – unless the Queen is there to conduct the state opening.
Strange allies, Hague and Harman. Lots of history between them. But today they buried their differences and indulged in the sort of scripted pillow-talk that fits perfectly with Alex Salmond’s portrayal of Westminster as a conspiracy of millionaires hell-bent on despoiling Scotland.
Harman spoke of Scotland’s contribution to the Labour movement. Hague referred to the bonds of shared heritage, the abolition of slavery, the defeat of fascism.
‘We’ve sat together here since the early 18th century.’
But oddly, no mention of the many British PMs with Scottish roots: Campbell-Bannerman, Bonar Law, Macdonald, Macmillan, Douglas Home, Blair, Brown and Cameron. And that’s just since 1905.
Harman finished with an alliterative flourish.
‘We must stay as family. And not become foreigners to each other.’
Hague soft-balled back with greasy approbation.
‘The right honorable lady puts it extremely well,’ he purred.
Yuck, quite frankly, given his supreme contempt for her during their previous dispatch-box encounters.
Backbench MPs bolstered the fake truce. The usual checklist of imponderables was mentioned, the currency, the military, the jobs outlook. And room was found for soppy twaddle. Richard Fuller asked the people of Scotland to draw lessons from his Aberdeen-born mum and his Cambridge-born dad who recently celebrated their diamond wedding anniversary.
MPs started to look bored. Chit-chat spread. The pre-lunch hubbub rose to levels usually reserved for International Development questions. A sour note crept in as the SNP’s Pete Wishart tried to raise the tone. He asked Hague:
‘Will he join me in congratulating Scots for the way they’ve conducted this debate?’
Hague had other ideas. He laid into Whishart’s party for ‘not telling the truth’ to Scotland.
Tantamount to calling them liars. But the back benchers had already erupted into cheers on every side. The sound of Westminster whooping with glee as the moral probity of the SNP is called into question will give yet more comfort to Salmond.
Hardly a triumph of stage management. South or north.
From down here, the PM’s don’t-panic sprint up to Edinburgh looks ill-advised and undignified. And he seems determined to come back clutching the wooden spoon. But on paper, next week may still shape up as a win-win for him.
A No vote means he’s vanquished Britain’s wiliest political operator. A Yes means he’s secured permanent Tory government for the country of his birth.
Can’t be all bad.