PMQs began with an announcement. The life president of the John Bercow fan-club rose from the Speaker’s chair to welcome a distinguished Dutch parliamentarian sitting up in the gallery. No one recognised the name of this blow-in from the land of windmills. But he is no doubt as important in his own domestic circle as Mr Bercow is in his.
Taxpayers will be thrilled to know that the Speaker makes pals on his overseas junkets. And how apt that a man of such humble stature has befriended a parliamentarian from the Low Countries. Mr Bercow spent most of the session demonstrating his mastery of events by interrupting MPs with his slim list of antiquarian heckles. ‘Calm yourself,’ ‘Take a rest, man’. ‘Honourable members must contain themselves.’ His favourite trick is to identify backbenchers who are wasting time by shouting a lot. He then redoubles the nuisance by shouting at them about how much time is wasted by one member shouting at another.
The party leaders broke new ground today. Jeremy Corbyn’s novelty was to salute the fall in unemployment. Mrs May congratulated him. ‘He’s done a first.’
‘I wonder if the prime minister can “do a first” and answer a question,’ Corbyn replied.
Amazing. Repartee has never been part of Corbyn’s forensic technique but today, after just 44 years in parliament, he has become a wit. The fledgling tumbles from the nest and lo – it flies.
But Mr Corbyn wasn’t about to indulge his new-found aptitude for cut-and-thrust. A higher prize was in view. He wanted to capitalise on last week’s triumph. Just seven days ago he suggested that phone charges for Universal Credit claimants should be scrapped. And this morning his wish was granted. This effectively turned Mr Corbyn into the prime minister, and Mrs May into a sort of deputy-queen signing his pledges into law.
Prime Minister Corbyn issued a fresh demand. Would Mrs May suspend the entire system of UC before its nationwide implementation?
‘Yes’ … said Mrs May.
Yes? Labour couldn’t believe it. She said ‘Yes’ to halting UC. The Theresa-shambles had meant ‘Yes’ in reference to the U-turn on phone tariffs. But a clumsy pause left the impression that she’d put UC on hold.
She was in trouble. Labour were in full cry. But a fellow-bungler came to her rescue. Mr Bercow ascended from his chair (he’s one of the few mortals who can approach sea-level by ascending) and glared at the Labour shriek-mob. Calm yourselves, please. Grateful Mrs May took advantage of the breather. But she faltered again, instantly.
‘I think this is, … I think this is, … I said last week, we were listening to a lot of, uh, of proposals.’
A needle-jumping passage, just like her stammering conference speech. She regrouped and the moment passed. But it was a close squeak. She delivered a lesson about state funding to Mr Corbyn. ‘The government has no money,’ she said. Which may explain the delays to UC payments.
Then a fresh tide of rage engulfed her. Durham’s Laura Pidcock asked why Universal Credit was arriving in her constituency just before Christmas when budgets are tightest. ‘Is it calculated cruelty?’, she asked
Odd that Labour considers government cash for poor northerners as a crime against poor northerners. As the barracking reached gale-force, nobody heard Mr Bercow’s size sixes landing softly on the carpet. He appealed for calm. ‘We are not setting a good example to our Dutch friends,’ he said, with a pinkish smirk. ‘I’m sure he does it better over there.’
Does what, exactly? Uses parliament as a vanity mirror. No. In that field our Speaker leads the world.