Sketch: Escaping Westminster

The weight of inevitability hung over Westminster today, as most MPs – including David Cameron – shied away from fighting their usual battles.

By Alex Stevenson

The unity among the three party leaders on the importance of accepting Sir Christopher Kelly’s root-and-branch proposals for expenses reform as a package has utterly sidelined backbenchers’ frustrations. They trooped into the chamber like condemned prisoners, utterly resigned to their fate. Perhaps the proceedings might offer some distracting amusement.

It was Cameron who first raised the issue of expenses in prime minister’s questions, offering no immediate prospect for cheerfulness. Awkward coughs greeted his suggestion that accepting the recommendations in full was “important”. The meagre ‘hear hears’ were a far cry from the usual raucous cheering which greets his final question. When Brown replied, the nodding Harriet Harman was painfully conspicuous. No one could even be bothered to ‘hear hear’ him.

MPs were not interested in taking on the Kelly monolith by themselves. Most sat there, the report on their knees, scratching their heads as they worked out how it would affect them. A couple of Labour backbenchers talked animatedly as they pointed at his list of recommendations. They slowly drifted out of the chamber, leaving only Sir Patrick Cormack to plead with Harman for a ‘take-note’ debate. Lunch appeared more appealing than hanging around to fight a battle that’s already been lost.

With MPs finding themselves out of power, the unwritten rules of the Westminster village appeared to have been utterly subverted. Sir Christopher’s behaviour during his press conference demonstrated his own supreme confidence in the power of his committee’s irresistible demands. A dismayed Nick Robinson, who is usually called on to ask one of the first questions in major press conferences, raised his hand in vain as Sir Christopher – maybe cross with the BBC’s role in breaking the leak of his committee’s findings last week – looked elsewhere.

Sir Christopher is so independent he jumped at the chance to attack the leak. He had briefed party leaders “in confidence”, he said, hours before the story broke in the media. This was “extremely irritating”, he said, admitting his own “frustration” in an act of classic British understatement.

A far stranger, perhaps more disturbing subversion of the natural order was Brown’s comprehensive victory in prime minister’s questions. Cameron’s utter abdication of the offensive, by restricting himself to half-baked concerns about Afghan police forces, gave the prime minister an opportunity to assert himself which he did not turn down.

The Tory leader, hours away from abandoning his “cast-iron guarantee” to hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, could only squirm uncomfortably as the phrase came back to haunt him. Brown’s comments had an unusual edge to them – he had been told by Bercow to focus his replies on the government’s policies, not the opposition’s – and this gave his swipes an added cheekiness. Not a word you’d usually associate with the prime minister, but the sheer adolescent scorn of his “unlike some other people!” dropped on to the end of policy explanations had his backbenchers gleeful in support.

It was an act of mutual distraction, therefore, when backbench MPs and Cameron joined together to find a common, helpless prey. MPs hunt like a pack. When they sense a weakness they crowd around to tear apart their quarry.

John Bercow had appeared in confident mood after he prevented Brown from completing a political jab about the NHS against Cameron. But the Speaker, who is yet to win over the hearts and minds of many on the Tory benches, found himself wanting to burrow his way to the back of his enormous chair when he revealed the anti-sleaze watchdog’s new boss would be paid a maximum of £100,000.

“Order, order, order!” Bercow cried, over a barrage of spite-filled jeers. He continued: “Order! Order! Order! Order!” It wasn’t working.

A note of pleading entering his voice as he tried to battle gainfully against the wall of mockery. “We are fortunate – order! Order! We are fortunate to have such an eminent candidate for the job -“

The rest was lost as a tidal wave finally swamped his floundering authority. Brown grinned quietly to himself. Nick Clegg hopelessly struggled to stifle a smile. Cameron, who needed a bit of cheering up, didn’t bother hiding his feelings. He laughed and laughed, uniting with downcast MPs to enjoy this desperate moment of escapism.