PMQs sketch: Muted Commons overshadowed by tragedy

The Commons repeatedly returned to Cumbria and Afghanistan during PMQs
The Commons repeatedly returned to Cumbria and Afghanistan during PMQs

PMQs was about as limp as the lettuce served for lunch to the Commons' more portly dieting grandees.

By Alex Stevenson

There was no panache, no zip, no rollicking to-and-fro to the proceedings. Perhaps it's because the new MPs are too intimidated by Speaker John Bercow to kick up much of a fuss. Who would have thought life under a coalition government would have been so dull?

David Cameron seemed like he was still the leader of the opposition as he attacked a Labour party which - despite an entire month in opposition - remains shackled to its 13 years in power.

He told the party opposite they were becoming "more and more authoritarian". Jack Straw was roused to flap his hand slightly when the prime minister told him Labour had "given up" on civil liberties. Ed Balls was told he was the "Alf Garnet" of British politics.

Cameron was as deft in riposte and as light in manner as a featherweight boxer, gleefully running rings around the very tired-sounding Harriet Harman.

She is utterly at the end of her tether, spent, exhausted, kaput. Before the election Ms H sounded like a clapped-out old schoolmarm, rebuking her wards ad infinitum in the same plaintive moan-o-tone. Now she sounds like a schoolmarm who has lost her job (probably an efficiency saving) but can't stop moaning nonetheless. It's a painful prospect.

The occasion was as dampened as the miserable weather. But it was not the unseasonal dark clouds outside which was overshadowing parliamentarians. Instead the real reasons for the lack of spark were the twin tragedies of Cumbria and Afghanistan.

They haunted this session from its very beginning, when Bercow called for an unusual one-minute silence to mark the first weekly anniversary of the Cumbria shootings. Sixty seconds passed mournfully in the eerily silent chamber. The hushed atmosphere, coming so soon after the jovial knockabout of Cabinet Office questions, was a credit to the Commons. No mobile phones went off, at least.

There were subplots to keep things interesting. Labour leadership hopeful Diane Abbott was seen flitting about, desperately rushing to secure more nominations as she neared her target. With just minutes to go until the 12:30 deadline she was seen haranguing the Beast of Bolsover, Dennis Skinner, in an apparently unsuccessful attempt to win him over. How ironic that, only moments before, she had been seen irately tapping her wrist to indicate passing time. Then it was because a Tory backbencher's question was excessively long. In fact it summed up her losing battle against the ticking clock.

Then came the coalition tensions, with Nick Clegg literally Cameron's right-hand-man. The Liberal Democrat leader nodded especially vigorously when Cameron mentioned a meeting of the "joint ministerial council", whatever archaic Cabinet body that may be. We can be sure Clegg was present.

He and George Osborne exchanged little snippets of small talk every now and then, to demonstrate solidarity. They did so with the awkwardness of teenagers at their first grown-up party.

At least the session ended on a more cheerful note. At no further cost to the taxpayer, Cameron announced triumphantly, "the flag of St George will fly over Downing Street". Come on, Eng-er-land!

The Scottish National party's three MPs looked on dourly. There's no pleasing some people.


Politics @ Lunch

Friday lunchtime. Your Inbox. It's a date.