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A febrile afternoon in the House, tremendously enjoyable for anyone who enjoys a parliamentary spectacle.

There is Dominic Grieve sitting on the step next to Ken Clarke, who is in his accustomed seat, as Father of the House, directly behind the Treasury bench – two Tory rebels with a total of 69 years in Parliament, much of it in senior ministerial roles, but now they are two men the Government must square, or at least stop from leading others astray.

The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is about to come on, and a Ten Minute Rule Bill on minimum pricing for alcohol is being introduced by Fiona Bruce (Con, Congleton).

No one is listening. There is a buzz of excited conversation about the Withdrawal Bill. Grieve has moved on to talk to David Davis, the Brexit Minister, who is sitting on the front bench, with Grieve leaning forward from the bench immediately behind.

“Four per cent of the population drink just under a third of the alcohol consumed in this country,” Bruce says.

But what are the two statesmen saying to each other? Davis’s manner is ostentatiously unstatesmanlike. He wants to show how relaxed he is, and laughs unroariously, like a bloke in a saloon bar who wishes everyone to see what a good sense of humour he has.

The Withdrawal Bill starts with a vote on the Programme Motion, which dictates the timing of the debate, and allows MPs another 15 minutes to wander where they will, like schoolboys on a day of unexpected drama when anything might happen.

Stephen Twigg (Lab, Liverpool West Derby) comes over to crack a joke with Davis. David Gauke, Justice Secretary, chats at the bar of the House to Philip Lee, who this morning resigned as Justice Minister.

The Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, looking pink and cheerful and somehow rejuvenated, stands just inside the doors at the far end of the Chamber from the Speaker’s chair, bantering with a group of four or five Tories, including Andrew Mitchell.

A few yards away, Damian Green, until last December the Prime Minister’s right-hand ministerial colleague, flops down next to Keith Simpson on the front bench below the gangway. Philip Hammond, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, walks the length of the Chamber, slim and solitary, talking to no one.

The Government wins the vote on the Programme Motion by 321 to 304 and Davis is now on his feet, running through the reasons for rejecting the Lords amendments.

But one’s eye is caught by Julian Smith, the Chief Whip, who has gone to the far end of the Chamber, and is sitting on the step next to Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is in his accustomed place at the end of one of the benches.

Smith is doing most of the talking. Rees-Mogg leans back, his legs crossed, and listens. Davis, at the Dispatch Box, tells the House that “necessary is not a synonym for sensible, logical or proper”.

Grieve rises to intervene: “I understand the point he’s making, but I have to say I’m not sure I agree with him.”

Clarke rises too, and says the Withdrawal Bill is “so wide and vague” that ministers could do what they like and the House would have “no conceivable opportunity to challenge them”.

Davis says in his blokeish way, “I hear my Right Honourable Friend and old friend…we are still capable of having a dinner for two hours and not talking about Europe…it was a lunch, and he paid for it.”

Theresa May, who is sitting beside Davis, nods as he sums up, asking MPs to do nothing to undermine the Government’s negotiating position, and to respect the referendum result.

Now Matthew Pennycook is responding from the Labour front bench, maintaining amid expressions of incredulity that the Lords are not trying to overturn the referendum result.

Smith, the Chief Whip, gets Steve Baker, the Brexit Minister, to make way for him in the space on the front bench next to Davis. May leans across Davis and joins in the conversation Smith is already holding with the Brexit Secretary. So far as one can see, jokes are no longer being told.

Graham Stringer (Lab, Blackley and Broughton) has intervened on Pennycook and is complaining that the Lords “have gone way beyond their constitutional remit”.

The Chief Whip is now crouching down in front of the Prime Minister and conferring with her. One cannot help feeling Smith is quite agile to manage this posture in the very narrow space available. Is it possible he is also quite worried?

The Solicitor General, Robert Buckland, comes to the Dispatch Box to tell Grieve that the latter’s amendment will be taken “as the basis for a structured discussion”.

What in heaven’s name does that mean? It appears to mean that for the time being, the rebellion has been bought off. But it was a very exciting afternoon.

44 comments for: Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: the Chief Whip crouches in front of the Prime Minister

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