The exchanges between Harman and Cameron lacked tempo or bite. Both leaders sensed that their parties had been doped with fear by Bercow. With the house becalmed, the leaders wasted their time, and ours, swapping inane pleasantries about Kenneth Clark’s taste for jazz and about Cameron’s mother, once a Newbury magistrate, who sometimes jailed CND protestors at Greenham Common. Ho hum.
Cameron was about to spice things up by mocking the new Labour project with a quote from Alastair Campbell’s memoirs. But Bercow stopped him dead. Technically he’s right. Labour memoirs fall outside the PM’s remit but the session isn’t just there to obey its own footling guidelines. PMQs is a forum for a debate and also an opportunity for parliament to show us our political culture at its most exciting and dramatic. The PM is perfectly entitled to stray off-piste and chivvy up his troops by taking some cheap shots at the opposition. It brightens our Wednesdays up.
More questions followed but the atmosphere remained eerily subdued. After a backbench query about the AV referendum, Bercow rose up again and called another languid halt. ‘Members shouldn’t shout at the prime minister in that way. First it is rude. Secondly it delays progress’. Why shouldn’t they shout at Cameron? Or be rude. He’s not the head of state. He’s there to discover the mood of the representatives he leads. Never mind the sensitivities of the chair.
Besides, this viewer couldn’t hear the ‘rude shouting’ Bercow was referring to. The only delay was his own in drawing attention to an irrelevance. He is the ‘screech’ he complains about.
One of the strange glories of the house is that it’s far too small to seat every MP. Popular debates, where eager members crowd into the cramped aisles, have the feverish hot-house mood of a cockfight or an illegal boxing match. Every head cranes forward to catch a glimpse of the action. This is healthy for politics. At its best the Commons can replicate the exhilarating unpredictability of a public meeting during a time of national crisis. And a PM who can command the chamber in full spate gains the respect of every side. The house is there to examine the mettle of its leaders under conditions of maximum stress. This means shouting. It means insults. Sometimes it means mayhem too. So be it. This is what politics is – civil war refined into rhetoric. We need to see it in its natural condition.
In his pomp, Tony Blair had the ability to control the Commons even when the floods raged against him. To see him exhibit this power was magnificent and even inspiring. It gave the country an index of the man’s energy and spirit. And he needed no protection from Betty Boothroyd, the excellent and level-headed speaker who presided over his early years.
Bercow’s interfering pedantry threatens to destroy PMQs. It may destroy him at the same time. If he succeeds in sucking the combative energies out of the chamber and transforming PMQs into a Cheltenham tea-party the viewers will tune out. The Speaker’s genteel longings will turn Britain away from its own politics. This over-delicate, over-mighty and over-rated Speaker needs to be given some ear-plugs or better still the elbow. Bring back Betty.