Sir Peter Tapsell, Father of the House, rose and asked a tremendous question. It began with a touch of self-mockery, and ended with a grave accusation against Tony Blair and George W. Bush. Sir Peter worked for Sir Anthony Eden during the 1955 general election, first entered the House in 1959 and is unfortunately standing down from his seat of Louth and Horncastle at the next general election, when he will be only 85 years old.
His question demonstrated not only that like some majestic and beautifully maintained Victorian steam engine, he is still in perfect working order, but that lucid oratory can still be used to embarrass the powers that be. Sir Peter declaimed the following words:
“Does my Right Honourable Friend fully recognise the contrast in efficiency between the inquiries into the Crimean War [laughter; a faint smile crosses Sir Peter’s lips] and the Dardanelles Campaign, when compared with the disgraceful incompetence of the Chilcot Inquiry into widely held suspicions that Mr Blair conspired with George W Bush several months before March of two thousand and three, and then systematically – systematically – sought to falsify the evidence on which that action was taken?”
Diane Abbott (Lab, Hackney North and Stoke Newington) followed that up by making the excellent point that if the forthcoming inquiry into child sex abuse is held up in this way, apparently at the behest of powerful people, the public will simply not understand. Sir Menzies Campbell (Lib Dem, North East Fife) proposed that to avoid such unconscionable delays in future, the proper template is the Leveson Inquiry: a judge-led inquiry with a strict timetable.
So when people say PMQs is just a trivial exchange of playground insults, they are wrong. Here were three independent-minded backbenchers, from three different parties, using it to make important points with admirable brevity.
Mark Reckless (UKIP, Rochester and Strood) asked – against a background of boorish Tory jeers – another admirably brief question: “The Deputy Prime Minister dared to debate Nigel Farage. Why won’t the Prime Minister?”
How sad Nick Clegg looked as he sat beside the Prime Minister: even sadder, I would say, than he usually does. Mr Reckless’s question did not cheer him up. For the truth is that Mr Clegg is so weak, he felt forced to take the gamble of debating against Mr Farage. Mr Cameron believes he is strong enough to hold out against such a contest.
Ed Miliband did his usual thing of starting quite strongly, and somehow losing momentum. He wagged a finger of his right hand, and then a finger of his left hand, but even his ambidexterity could not save him. Mr Cameron unkindly reminded the House that Mr Miliband “set the carpet on fire” while staying in a house in Doncaster. Time, he could have added, is running out for Mr Miliband to set the Thames on fire.