The title ‘Father of the House’ tends to give the bearer a chronic problem with wind. The present holder, Ken Clarke, stood up at PMQs and asked a question of Gibbonian magnitude and complexity. Among the gusts of prose was a useful point about spending. ‘It would be extremely unwise for the outgoing government to make reckless commitments,’ he said. He was ignored. Member after member tried to cadge money from Mrs May before she quits the Downing Street cash-pile.
The Conservative MP Marcus Jones wanted a handout for shops in Nuneaton, while Paul Scully made the case for SEN children. Tim Loughton, whose constituency abuts the sea, proposed a whole new arm of government, the Coastal Schools Challenge Fund, to help kids living near a beach to swot harder. Pleas were made for sex abuse victims, for patients with contaminated blood, for kids needing medicinal cannabis. Most pressing is the scandal of unsafe tower-block cladding that awaits replacement. Two years since Grenfell and there are 60,000 people living in dangerous high-rise buildings. Jeremy Corbyn did well to focus on this today.
The most eye-catching moment came when Speaker Bercow lost control of the house. The SNP’s Ian Blackford was lambasting Boris Johnson whom he identified as, ‘the front-runner in the leadership contest’. He recited some of Boris’s more inflammatory asides including the (plainly satirical) observation that ‘Scots should be banned from being prime minister.’
‘Not only is the member racist,’ commented Blackford, ‘but he is stoking division in communities.’
Calls of ‘withdraw!’ erupted from the Tory benches. Speaker Bercow climbed to his feet but he didn’t seem to know what to do next.
‘He should be extremely careful in the language he uses,’ he said. Rather a mild rebuke. Louder cries of ‘Withdraw! Withdraw!’ pealed out. Bercow appeared to take his cue from the hecklers rather than relying on his personal judgement.
‘Withdraw any allegation of racism,’ he said to Blackford. But the opposite happened. Blackford repeated the accusation. ‘He has called Moslem women “letterboxes”. If that’s not racist I don’t know what is.’
And Bercow did nothing. His authority had collapsed. Having ordered an accusation to be withdrawn, and having watched that order being defied, Bercow was content to pretend that all was well. The Prime Minister answered Blackford’s question and explained what Bercow should have done. The purpose of PMQs, said Mrs May, is for members to ‘ask the prime minister about the actions of the government.’ A provocative phrase from Boris Johnson’s overworked Biro cannot be the responsibility of Number 10. It was a pretty shoddy scene.
Moments later it was repeated when Labour’s Virendra Sharma reviewed May’s tenure in office, first as Home Secretary, then as Prime Minister.
‘Her racist policies have caused thousands of people to be treated inhumanely,’ he said.
May looked towards Bercow for a ruling. But having failed to get a retraction first time around he wasn’t about to try again. The accusation stood. The Speaker didn’t.
The house then continued to scrounge cash. There was a camp and rather over-rehearsed soliloquy from Labour MP Rosena Allin-Khan. Her theme was a violent death in her constituency.
‘My heart is broken,’ she heaved, ‘and Tooting’s heart is broken.’ Her artful tone-poem spoke of ‘a son, a brother, a friend taken too soon.’ Behind her weepy rhetoric lay a demand for money to be spent on more cops (good idea) and youth clubs (questionable). I passed my teenage years near Tooting and I didn’t stab anyone. Nor did I go to a youth club. I read books.