John Bercow, at his last ever PMQs, heard tributes from all sides of the house. ‘Best speaker I’ve seen,’ said veteran Ronnie Campbell. ‘You have stood up for democracy,’ oozed the SNP’s Ian Blackford. Tory Nigel Evans: ‘No one has done more to promote LGBT rights than you. I salute you.’ And he dipped his head like a nun honouring a marble Virgin. Jeremy Corbyn managed a dig at the Speaker’s self-regard.
‘I hope you’ll indulge me one moment while I say a word about you.’ He paused. ‘I’m sure you will.’
The best tribute came from Boris whose playfully ironic speech contained a charge-sheet of near-criminal acts. He started by praising Bercow’s ‘ten tumultuous years in your high chair’ – a swipe at the Speaker’s short stature.
Then came weightier criticisms. He called the Speaker vain, meddling and verbose. ‘You have been a player in your own right, peppering every part of the chamber with your thoughts and opinions’.
He accused him of attempts to corrupt the constitution by means of ‘the legislative innovations you have favoured’.
And he found him guilty of impeding the government’s ability to govern. ‘You have done more than anyone since Stephen Hawking to stretch time.’ Finally, he squeezed in an oblique reference to Bercow’s 2009 promise not to occupy the chair beyond 2018. ‘Yours has been the longest retirement since Frank Sinatra.’
Bercow affected to find this character assassination highly amusing. The PM’s tussle with Corbyn centred around Britain’s future. Corbyn wants to put ‘necessary funding’ into the NHS and to end the ‘deep pain’ of patients.
Boris said Labour would condemn us to the ‘toxic tedious torpor’ of two more referendums, on Europe and Scottish independence.
Turning to the SNP, he derided their ‘crackpot plan for borders at Berwick,’ and their bizarre wish ‘to hand back control of Scotland’s fisheries and its spectacular marine wealth to Brussels.’
‘A rant,’ said Ian Blackford dismissively. Which drew an apology from the PM.
‘I’m sorry if I seemed to rant. He does rant quite a lot about independence. He bangs on about it…to conceal what the SNP is doing to Scotland.’
Blackford wants Scotland as ‘an independent nation within the EU.’ He used this mantra twice, perhaps hoping that constant repetition will lend it credibility. Independent nations and the EU will shortly be incompatible.
Jess Phillips rose with an excellent complaint. Shortfalls have forced her son’s school to close on Fridays. And she held Boris personally responsible for denying her child an education. This might have troubled the PM but Phillips has no discipline. Having fired her bolt, she started to ramble on and flail her arms, delivering a list of pre-rehearsed jibes which were supposed to look improvised.
‘I don’t want to hear speeches from his folder. I don’t want to hear his campaign-ad answer.’ The Tories hooted at her for failing to reach her point.
‘I’m so glad you think it’s really funny that people can’t go to school’.
This merely gave Boris extra time to think. And he shrugged her question aside because its point had already vanished in her gales of bluster. If Tory MPs were to pick Corbyn’s successor, Phillips would win by a landslide.
Finally, it arrived. The last moment of Bercow’s last PMQs. He lifted his gaze to his wife and kids in the public gallery. His voice faltered. His eyes brimmed with emotion. He wasn’t alone. All across Britain, wails and gasps were heard as millions wept for joy.