Donald Macintyre's Sketch: All agree to ‘stand firm’ – whatever that means


The Commons isn’t often as hyper-consensual as this.  Ed Miliband and David  Cameron were united over the latest Isis atrocity.

The PM said the only response was to “stand firm and to send a very straightforward message: [that we] will not be cowed by these barbaric killers.” Miliband said that “he can be assured of our full support in standing firm against them.”

They were equally united in not saying what “standing firm” would actually mean in practice. Perhaps understandably, since no-one – President Obama included – yet seems to have an overall answer to the horrendous dilemmas posed by Isis.

RAF air strikes in Iraq alongside US ones were not mentioned by either party leader. And the PM did not exactly explain how the “so-called Islamic caliphate” could “be squeezed out of existence” without, as Labour’s Peter Hain suggested, “air strikes in Syria as well.” But the other reason for cross-party harmony was the whiff of panic as England belatedly wakes up to the dire possibility of the break-up of Britain in a fortnight’s time.

So raucously did the Scottish Nationalist MPs revel in the narrowing of the polls that Speaker John Bercow amiably rebuked one, the “over-excitable” Angus MacNeil, by declaring “You aspire to be a statesman. Try behaving like one”.

MacNeil was reacting to a stentorian call for unity from the Tory Sir Edward Leigh  to prevent “a national  humiliation of catastrophic proportions.”

You don’t have to share Sir Edward’s politics to agree with his admission that “perhaps we have been a bit complacent up to now” or admire his true Brit exhortation to the main party leaders “to drop everything else and stand shoulder to shoulder to fight for the Union that we love and believe in.”

Sir Edward’s gallantry didn’t end there. When Bercow was later attacked by three of his more sulphurous Tory enemies over the appointment of a new Commons Clerk, Sir Edward said: “If a democratic assembly is to function properly, it is absolutely vital to uphold the authority of the Speaker.”

Bercow thanked him but then needlessly added that he had “very properly” answered all the questions. It might have been wiser to give Sir Edward the last word. But reticence is not one of the Speaker’s many qualities.

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