The busy Speaker has made two new friends this week. He interrupted PMQs to introduce them to the house. ‘We’re very fortunate,’ he simpered, ‘to be joined in the public gallery by two members of the Osmond family. Jay and Merrill Osmond.’ The Osmonds were five luxuriantly coiffured brothers whose pop success in the 1970s owed itself, in part, to their square-jawed resemblance to the Kennedy clan. They were like Camelot but without the assassinations. So today the love-sick Speaker said how ‘very fortunate’ he was to have them in attendance. They probably felt the exact opposite. This was one of the flattest sessions in memory.
Absent were the chief combatants. The Tories’ stricken ice-queen is at a Nato pow-wow in Brussels. And Jeremy Corbyn had sent in Emily Thornberry to deputise for him. She has a killer-instinct at the despatch-box but today she was below par. Perhaps she under-delivered on purpose. Labour wants to take advantage of the government. But it doesn’t want to take over the government.
The Tories were led by the jerky, bird-like presence of David Lidington. For him this was a historic occasion. At breakfast time, he was a well-regarded but not outstanding purveyor of parliamentary flannel. He ends the day as one of the great wafflers of our time. The trick is to fill the air with rambling utterances whose syntactical structure is sound but which render no meaning whatsoever. His special contribution to the flannel-maker’s art is to listen to a question, and then to decide which part of it he wants to answer. Then he begins, ‘What’s important here…’. Or, ‘The important thing is…’ Or, ‘It’s very important to remember …’ And then he’s off, spinning out endless concatenations of phrases and clauses that have the same effect on his audience as a pint of Night Nurse.
He and Emily Thornberry got lost in the thickets of an argument about tariffs and the use of hi-tech gizmos to track commodities as they snake across Europe’s transport routes. But which goods and what gizmos? Imagine a lorryload of freshly harvested kelp which must go from Ireland to Switzerland via Britain and France. That involves four crossings of the EU frontier. Quite a headache for customs officials charged with the job of raising taxes from migrating seaweed. And even more of a headache for Brexit negotiators. No wonder David Davis quit.
Lidington’s prolix answers began to trouble Bercow who considers himself parliament’s pre-eminent driveller. He stood up and delivered a lengthy gobbet of tripe asking Lidington to stop delivering lengthy gobbets of tripe.
By now backbenchers were sidling towards the exit. Many had remembered important lunch appointments to attend, precious dry-cleaning to be collected, overdue library books to return, forgotten Hoover-bags to empty, abandoned knitting to resume.
The Osmond brothers may have bailed out early as well. ‘Very fortunate’ if so. They’d have been spared the sight of Ian Blackford attempting to insult their president. He chastised Donald Trump for his ‘disgusting’ attitude to migrants and for his ‘extreme bigotry’. Then he went one further. He pointed out that today is the 23rd anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre and he suggested a moral equivalence between that atrocity and the policies of the Trump presidency. Hisses of contempt greeted this facile trick. And it revealed the calibre of Blackford’s rhetoric. A decent debater doesn’t need eight thousand slaughtered civilians to lend weight to his argument.