Death calmed the Commons. News of the demise of Paul Goggins, the well-liked Labour member for Wythenshawe and Sale East, had a sobering effect far beyond what the Speaker, John Bercow, can generally manage during Prime Minister’s Questions.
Even the most loutish hecklers found themselves confronted with evidence of their own mortality. In the midst of politics we are in death. Within a few years, or at most a few decades, none of us will be in a position to shout insults at the other side.
David Cameron dominated this sombre House. His command of tone comes in to its own on these solemn occasions, when his good manners are no longer vitiated by an excess of oneupmanship, often accompanied by a regrettable tendency to look as if he is enjoying himself. Ed Miliband became a barely noticed spectator.
Within a few minutes, seasoned lobby journalists began to complain the whole event was dull. But dullness has its uses. In a more partisan atmosphere, Mr Cameron might have found it harder to make the admission elicited from him by Ian Davidson (Labour, Glasgow South-West).
Mr Davidson said the last person the supporters of the “No” campaign in the Scottish referendum wish to have speaking on their behalf “is a Tory toff from the Home Counties, even one with a fine haircut”.
Mr Cameron bent double with laughter as Mr Davidson spoke, but recovered his composure and began his reply with the words, “I humbly accept that.” The Prime Minister admitted his appeal does not stretch to every part of Scotland.
Honesty is often the best politics. At the next general election, it will be fruitless for Mr Cameron to try to attain victory by persuading millions of people to feel great personal enthusiasm for him. He will have a much better chance of winning if he presents himself as the most competent candidate: the one with the best plan for sorting out the British economy.
Professional competence is an unexciting virtue, but whether one is looking for a plumber or a politician, it tends to be decisive. Tory backbenchers urged Mr Cameron to “stick steadfastly to his long tried and tested economic policies”. The Prime Minister duly promised to do this. He missed no chance to promise that he will stick to the plan.
We journalists will object that this is an intolerably boring form of politics. But as a strategy for winning the election, it might just work.