Prime Ministers’ Questions were over before they started. A loyal collective murmur of support, consisting of deep and emphatic “hear hears”, greeted Theresa May as she entered the chamber at 11.58, and indicated that this was not a day on which the Tory tribe wished her to come to any harm.
We were treated instead to a festival of modern piety, with MPs from both sides of the House competing to see who could offer the most cliché-ridden treatment of mental health, suicide, rough sleeping, modern slavery, plastic pollution in the world’s oceans, drug-related deaths in Kent, and, no doubt, a number of other worthy topics which were raised after the Chamber had sunk into a despairing torpor.
The Prime Minister is in her element as she gives, with some slight variations, the same answer to every one of these inquiries: “The Honourable Gentleman raises an important point…whole House will want to send its deepest sympathy to family and friends…bring the details of this tragic case to the attention of the relevant minister, who will want to arrange a meeting…long-term plan…much achieved…all agree there is more to be done…tough decisions…new code of conduct…”
Thanks to the Speaker, who wishes to give backbenchers the chance to hold the Government to account, we today got 51 minutes of this guff, in place of the timetabled half hour.
The Leader of the Opposition is allowed to ask six questions. Jeremy Corbyn devoted them to austerity as it affects mental health services, the police, teachers and benefit recipients. He too advanced, as it were, behind an ever-changing screen of victims.
May offered an important distinction: “Austerity is being brought to an end. What is not being brought to an end is fiscal responsibility.”
But she also wanted to show how much the Government is doing for each group of victims. Economics has become a branch of the language of moral concern in which every aspect of national life is now smothered to death.
Kenneth Clarke, the Father of the House, asked a question about politics. He urged the Prime Minister to bring a compromise agreement back from Brussels which she will proceed “courageously” to get passed by the pro-Europeans on both sides of the House, although it will be rejected by “the hard-line Bennites” on the Labour front bench and “the right-wing nationalists in our party”.
May refused to go there. The House of Commons, she indicated, is no place for politics, but somewhere everyone must “put the national interest first”. That at least is the moral club with which she will try, on returning from Brussels, to bludgeon her opponents into a bloody pulp.