Tory MPs came back from Christmas feeling ready to be cross. One could see it in their grumpy faces as they listened to Theresa May, but it was the Speaker, John Bercow, who fanned their anger into a roaring conflagration which took an hour to subside.
It is worth dwelling for a moment on May herself. The Prime Minister looks more and more like a poker player who has been dealt some lousy cards and cannot maintain the pretence that she is feeling confident.
When Jeremy Corbyn asked her if any changes she obtains in Brussels will “be made to the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement itself”, there was a slight tremor in her voice as she began her reply.
And when he remarked that he didn’t hear the words “legal changes to the document” from the Prime Minister, her voice rose as she attempted to retort: “I’ve made it clear to the Honourable Gentleman…”
Nor did those beside and behind her look any more sure of themselves. They too were pale and gloomy. Even Boris Johnson, sitting with his arms folded at the far end of the Chamber, looked pale and gloomy, and thinner than he was.
If Corbyn had any sense, he would have gone on asking, with increasing brevity, about legal changes to the document, for the subject plainly rattled her. But he and his handlers are under the illusion that they should try to ask a number of different questions, instead of exposing the nullity of her answers by pressing again and again on her weakest point.
Her performance did nothing to improve the morale of Tory MPs, but instead reminded them that she is no use as a saleswoman. The more she told MPs the answer is to vote for her deal, the less enamoured of her deal the House felt.
Ken Clarke, the Father of the House, irritated his Tory colleagues by telling May she “has to be flexible on some things”, and asking her to consider delaying or revoking Article 50. That produced angry cries of “No”.
As soon as PMQs ended, Tory Eurosceptics directed a stream of furious points of order at the Speaker for selecting Dominic Grieve’s amendment while rejecting theirs. Mark Francois was beside himself with rage as he accused Bercow of overturning a motion of the House.
Clarke counter-attacked by suggesting that people like Francois “who are getting somewhat over-excited” should perhaps “don a yellow jacket and go outside”.
The Chief Whip, Julian Smith, was on his knee talking to the Prime Minister. He appears to have lost some more of his hair. Perhaps he tore it out while trying to find a way through for her deal.
Stephen Doughty, one of the Labour supporters of the Grieve amendment, accused the Chief Whip of “feverishly briefing journalists in a calculated attempt to undermine” the Speaker’s judgment.
Andrea Leadsom, the Leader of the House and no friend of Bercow, suggested he should publish the advice he received from the Commons clerks. For the general view on the Tory benches was that he had defied that advice.
Bercow naturally declined to do this. There were angry cries of “Publish it!” To describe the Tories as incandescent with rage would be no exaggeration. They feared the Speaker was betraying Brexit by bending the rules in order to allow the Remainers to take back control.
Iain Duncan Smith and others suggested that by allowing the Grieve amendment, Bercow had broken with precedent. The Speaker replied: “I understand the importance of precedent. But…if we were guided only by precedent…nothing in our procedure would ever change.”
He added that he was invariably determined “to stand up for the rights of the House of Commons”. Angela Eagle, from the Labour benches, crowed that “the House of Commons is taking back control”.
Labour and the Scots Nats loved seeing the Tories so confounded, and at times burst out clapping.
Andrew Percy, from the Tory benches, declared that “a procedural stitch-up” was taking place. Crispin Blunt said he was driven to the “uncomfortable conclusion” that among his Tory colleagues there was now “an unshakeable conviction that the referee of our affairs is no longer neutral”.
When the umpire is no longer regarded as neutral, it becomes difficult to accept his decisions as final.
Bercow declared: “I have always done my conscientious best.” There was an odd echo here of Tony Blair after the Iraq War, insisting he had always acted in good faith.
Adam Holloway asked in a fury about the pro-EU sticker in the Speaker’s car. Bercow retorted that the sticker “happens to be affixed to the windscreen of my wife’s car”, and he does not regard her as his chattel.
Perhaps it is a good thing to have all this fear of betrayal bursting out in the Chamber, for it reflects the fear of betrayal found in many a humble home. One cannot pretend it is edifying, but it is representative of the wider nation.
My apologies for filing this sketch late. The computer I was using in the press gallery, perhaps sensing the psychological disturbance sweeping through Westminster, suddenly and irrevocably stopped working.