Children in the galleries, Jeremy Corbyn in a bright green tie and Boris Johnson paying tribute to the Speaker’s ability “more than anyone since Stephen Hawking to stretch time”.
There was a magical feeling to Prime Minister’s Questions: the magic of a Christmas pantomime in which one is supposed, in the cause of spreading good cheer, to suspend disbelief and accept all sorts of implausibilities.
The Speaker lived up to the reputation ascribed to him by the Prime Minister and stretched the proceedings out to an hour and a quarter, the longest ever, by which time quite a few members of the audience had understandably opted for lunch.
This extended session allowed time for the paying of a considerable number of flowery, and by no means entirely unmerited, compliments to the Speaker, for this was his last PMQs, watched by his wife and children from the gallery.
One hopes his successor will cut PMQs back to half an hour. It should have the brevity of a good tabloid newspaper, where the issues of the day are distilled into a few words.
Johnson framed the election as a choice between “the politics of protest and the politics of leadership”. He added that “it’s all very easy to be an Islington protester” like the Leader of the Opposition, but “the time for protest is over”.
What is more, Corbyn wants to subject the country to “the toxic tedious torpor” of two more referendums.
The Prime Minister occasionally offers delightful flashes of silence, or at least of quietness, but when he is in election mode he produces crescendo after crescendo, so one finds oneself wondering whether he can get any louder. “More,” the Tory benches roared in their role as pantomime audience when he had sat down.
Kenneth Clarke, the Father of the House and about to retire after 49 years, asked Johnson for “some clarity on what he will seek to achieve if by chance he wins this unpredictable election”, and in particular whether, by ensuring tariff-free trade between Britain and the European Union, he will show “he really is a liberal free trader at heart”.
The Prime Minister responded by expressing, as did the Speaker, tremendous appreciation of the Father of the House, along with tremendous enthusiasm for free trade deals.
Nobody was very earnest in tone, but that would not have been fitting for a pantomime which had just played for positively the final time with the present cast.
Nothing lasts forever, but Johnson, while alert to the danger of presuming on the audience’s continued support, sounds like an actor confident of getting several encores yet.
This kind of theatre, with himself as the star, suits him better, he finds, than any previous role he has played, and after all, he auditioned for the part for a long time before he landed it.