What a sombre PMQs. The House was united by a sense of trepidation. David Cameron insisted “this country will never give in to terrorism”, and “will not be cowed” by the the terrorists who have beheaded two American hostages and have threatened to behead a British one next. Ed Miliband devoted the whole of his six questions to supportive remarks about the “universal sense of revulsion” inspired by such “murderous behaviour”.
The Scottish referendum was similarly an occasion for sombre reflections, except from the Scottish Nationalists, as everyone else contemplated the awful possibility of the destruction of the United Kingdom. And the child abuse scandal in Rotherham could not provide any lightening of the mood, with Cameron instead going out of his way to agree with interventions from that town’s MP, Sarah Champion, and from Diane Abbott (Lab, Hackney North and Stoke Newington). The latter observed that if it is impossible, on contractual grounds, to sack people such as directors of social services, “maybe the contracts need looking at”.
Even the odd reference from the Labour side to Douglas Carswell, the MP who has left the Conservative Party for UKIP and is now seeking the approval of the electors of Clacton for that move, could not turn this PMQs into a more partisan occasion.
But such good behaviour could not last indefinitely. As soon as PMQs was over, three Conservative MPs – Simon Burns (Chelmsford), Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) and Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) – put hostile points of order to the Speaker about the affair of the appointment of the next Clerk of the House. Bercow looked angry, and spoke of the need to “rise to the level of events”, which is exactly what his critics tend to accuse him of not doing.
Sir Edward Leigh (Con, Gainsborough) pointed out that “if a democratic assembly is to function properly it is absolutely vital to uphold the authority of the Speaker”, and no one from the Labour side joined in the harrying of Bercow. Parts of the media want to drive him from office, but I would be very surprised if most MPs do.