Blair was Louis XIV, he suggested, a paragon of centralised state power, and Gordon Brown his sinister cardinal, gliding through the corridors of the House to corrupt honourable members. Alistair Darling began as the Man in the Iron Mask (the analogy appeared to be getting a bit out of hand by this time) but Mr Duncan Smith ended by encouraging him to emulate Sidney Carton, from A Tale of Two Cities. This was the moment, he implied, for the ancient regime (aka Labour Nouveau) to be overthrown by the downtrodden populace.
In a speech of unctuous fidelity, Gerald Kaufman rose to rally the mob to the royalist cause - revolt would do them no good, he said, only comfort the enemies of their friend and protector, King Tony. But one had to wonder why he felt the need at all. If the storming of the Bastille had been conducted along these lines it would have been a curious affair indeed - the rioters advancing in orderly fashion on the prison governor's lodgings and informing him that they were frightfully sorry but there might be some noise in the next few hours; there was nothing personal about it, and if he could just open the gate a pinch they would all avoid a lot of unpleasantness.
But the rebels also had some solid cobblestones to throw. Dr Roger Berry's speech in favour of the dissenting amendment quietly and courteously took out several of the ministerial arguments in favour of changing the rules on incapacity benefit. Spending wasn't rising, he pointed out, it was actually falling - so long-term savings couldn't be the reason. And nor could existing fraud either, since current recipients wouldn't be affected by the changes. "Perhaps the Tories didn't cut enough," he said, provoking a murmur of "shame" from a colleague. "Yes, it is a shame," he said quietly, deflecting the rebuke to his own front bench.
Frank Field made an effective speech, too, emphasising the moral consistency of Labour's opposition to means-testing, but also taking pains to illuminate the extraordinary mass conversion of the Tories to the cause of the dispossessed. There was indeed something eerie about the spectacle of the opposition benches. For Mr Field it brought to mind the Moonies but I felt it was more like watching a succession of foxes angrily denouncing the lack of security around the hen-house, speeches that were only slightly undermined by the fact that the vehemence of their indignation would occasionally dislodge a bloodstained feather from their chops. The wiser of them knew that the more time they left for Labour dissenters the better.
They will have enjoyed Audrey Wise's intervention, the first touch of fire. When she and her colleagues had fought for redistribution, she said scathingly, we didn't mean redistribution "from some disabled people to other disabled people". But she also inadvertently cheered the front bench, after invoking the historic precedent of 1976, when rebellious backbenchers forced Jim Callaghan to keep a promise about child benefit. Three years later candidates were able to go into the election with their heads held high, she said thrillingly. "And you lost!" shouted the front bench as one. That they said "you" and not "we" was telling. The debate ended with yet more heartfelt courtesies from back and front benches, but the vote itself suggested there was still plenty of clear water between "them" and "us".Reuse content