What a crazy muddle that was. Boris has spent two weeks digging a hole for himself and Sir Keir Starmer’s job at PMQs was to give him a shove and watch him disappear. The Labour leader pointed out that some in the cabinet have apologised for backing Owen Paterson but the PM has failed to follow suit.
‘Do the decent thing and say sorry,’ urged Sir Keir, ‘for trying to give a green light to corruption.’ Boris admitted to making a mistake, and then he raised Sir Keir’s receipt of £25,000 from the law firm, Mishcon de Reya.
Speaker Hoyle leapt up and declared that Sir Keir’s affairs are outside the PM’s remit. Everyone knows this – not least because Hoyle mentions it virtually every week. Anyway, isn’t Sir Keir big enough to look after himself?
Having been ordered not to mention the law firm, Boris did so again immediately. He can’t help himself. He’s the Katie Price of politics. He loves getting into trouble. It excites him. It makes him feel alive. His defiance brought a second slap down.
‘We play by the rules, don’t we?’ said the Speaker testily. And he hinted that he might ‘fall out’ with the Prime Minister.
Over to Sir Keir. He set up a well-rehearsed antithesis between his decisiveness and Boris’s irresponsibility.
‘When someone in my party misbehaves I kick them out,’ he began but he was silenced by the Speaker who tried to shush some clacking backbenchers.
‘This is not good,’ said Hoyle, ‘I want questions to be respected.’
When Sir Keir resumed he was forced to start again. So his thunder was stolen by the umpire who hadn’t listened to the man he was interrupting. John Bercow, Hoyle’s unlamented predecessor, made this blunder all the time. But Hoyle hadn’t finished. He offered this Delphic utterance: ‘We lost a dear friend and I want to show that the House has learned from it.’
What does that mean? ‘Dear friend’ is presumably a reference to the murdered MP, David Amess. And the implication is that the killer was radicalised by rowdiness in the chamber. This theory seems not just groundless but reckless. Is Hoyle suggesting that raised voices must be outlawed and that MPs should debate in whispers to protect the sensibilities of mentally unstable spectators? If so, he should make the new protocol clear. If not, he should avoid improvising from the chair.
Then he lost his rag completely. Hot-tempered Hoyle is known for throwing a wobbly and today he really let rip. Boris was trying to sneak in a third reference to Mishcon de Reya when the Speaker pulled the lever on his ejector-seat.
‘Sit down!’ he screamed at Boris. ‘You may be the prime minister of this country but in this House I’m in charge.’
That school-yard boast might have come from the overactive lungs of Bercow himself. But naughty Boris had more mischief up his sleeve. Floating a newly-minted word, he accused Sir Keir of ‘Mishconduct.’ He repeated it, for the benefit of the TV microphones. ‘Misconduct’ is forbidden and must be withdrawn but Boris hadn’t quite said that.
Four heads came together as Speaker Hoyle consulted with the clerks who sit just below him in the chamber. The issue they were discussing would keep a college of linguists awake for months: does a punning verbal mutation carry the same literal force as the word that inspired the neologism? Probably yes, since everyone who heard it knew exactly what insult was being thrown. But Hoyle took no action.
‘I don’t think this has done the House any good today,’ he said mournfully. Sir Keir must be fuming. His cleverly laid ambush was thwarted by the ill-disciplined pomposity of a man whose task is to facilitate debate not sabotage it.