Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn have just faced one another in the Commons for the first time in this new Parliament, though it is highly unlikely to be the last. The pair were responding to the election of the new Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, and both chose to use their statements to make a few remarks about the election itself.
Naturally, Johnson was greeted with a huge cheer from his MPs when he rose, and told the Speaker that ‘I mean absolutely no disrespect to those who are no longer with us – but I think this Parliament is a vast improvement on its predecessor’. He then promised that ‘this Parliament is not going to waste the time of the nation in deadlock and division and delay’, and that on Friday MPs would vote on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. He joked that even the Speaker’s pet parrot (called Boris) would by now be able to repeat the promise to ‘get Brexit done’, adding that ‘we are going to get on with delivering on the priorities of the British people, transforming the NHS, investing massively in education, in police, uniting and levelling up across the country and across the UK’.
Johnson has the majority to achieve whatever he wants, and the real risk in this Parliament is that he doesn’t press ahead with reforms, rather than that MPs will block them, as they have had the power to do over the past few years. But his statement did nod to one thing he has far less power over. He told MPs that ‘it is my belief and the belief of most honourable members in this house that we should resist the calls of those who would break up that United Kingdom’. For while the Tories had a good night in England and Wales last Thursday, they didn’t fare so well in Scotland, and Nicola Sturgeon has claimed victory and a mandate in Scotland to press ahead with plans for a second independence referendum. Johnson might have the votes for Brexit and his domestic reforms, but it’s going to be much harder for him to predict what will happen with the Union in the coming years.
Corbyn didn’t have as warm a reception, funnily enough. The Labour benches behind him were much depleted and those around the Labour leader looked exhausted and miserable. He paid tribute to the Labour MPs who had lost their seats, mentioning Dennis Skinner by name. But before he and Johnson had spoken, they had listened to one of the probable contenders to replace Corbyn, Lisa Nandy, who was proposing Hoyle as Speaker. She offered an analysis of a system that was breaking down and losing the trust of the people it was supposed to represent. It may well be something the Speaker himself agrees with from his own constituency experience. But it was also a none-too-subtle pitch from Nandy for the top job in the party. Corbyn is the ghost of Labour’s present, hanging around as leader when many MPs wish he could be consigned to the past. Might Nandy be the ghost of the party’s future?