What good humour reigned on the Tory benches at the start of the debate on the Queen’s Speech:and what signs of discord among the Opposition. By tradition, two backbenchers on the Government side open this debate. The first of these, Simon Burns (Chelmsford), was so full of the milk of human kindness, in the course of a very entertaining speech, that he said it was time for him to “bury the hatchet” with the Speaker, John Bercow, with whom he has long been on very bad terms.
David Cameron struck a high moral tone, but was good at taking interventions from Opposition members. He managed to be relaxed, without being insufferably relaxed, and was cheered by his own side with greater warmth than I can ever remember in the last Parliament. Slipping in to the language of a garage proprietor, he said “the last parliament was about a repair job”, while “this parliament must be about renewal”.
The Prime Minister looks so pre-eminent because while he leads a one-party Government, the Opposition benches are divided, and in the case of Labour, leaderless: Harriet Harman stood in, spoke with her usual spirit, but recognised her status as “interim”.
The SNP members could be distinguished by the white roses they wore, and their occasional tendency to clap. The Speaker said he would respect their right to address the House, and asked them to respect the convention that MPs don’t clap. We shall see.
Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, failed when he spoke to establish his presence. Alex Salmond rose later, to make a point of order, and one immediately wished to hear what he had to say.
Salmond challenged the right of the House to change standing orders so as to bring about English votes for English laws. The Speaker quite reasonably refused to issue an instant ruling on this vital question. Jacob Rees-Mogg said the House has the right to change standing orders if it wishes.
Nick Clegg was sitting behind Salmond, who was himself sitting behind Dennis Skinner, the Beast of Bolsover, who had managed to defend from the SNP his traditional place, on the front bench below the gangway. What a decline for Clegg: but he spoke with dignity, and perhaps finds it a relief no longer to be sitting in Cameron’s shadow on the Treasury bench. He made the forlorn point that under proportional representation, the Lib Dems would have had 51 MPs instead of just eight.
There were early signs of far greater animosity between Labour and the SNP, than between either of them and the Conservatives. Labour MPs blame the SNP for their disaster in Scotland, and for the Tory victory. Nothing at the start of this debate spoiled the good spirits of the Conservatives.