Donald Macintyre's Sketch: First day in House of Commons marked by a jostle for seats and deference to a Speaker the Tories couldn’t budge

Stuff was badly needed to rescue the whole thing from becoming that toe-curlingly inauthentic enormity known as 'the House of Commons at its best'

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Indy Politics

Outwardly a happy, even euphoric, first day in the House of Commons. Amiable speeches by the great and good from David Cameron down. John Bercow elected unanimously as Speaker amid acclaim. Warm welcome for the new MPs in this transformed new Parliament.

Stuff was badly needed to rescue the whole thing from becoming that toe-curlingly inauthentic enormity known as “the House of Commons at its best”. And luckily there was just that, starting with a hubristic territorial raid by the SNP marauders. Exultant as they are, they found it harder yesterday to wrest seats – literally – from English Labour MPs, including the Commons place of that venerable warhorse Dennis Skinner.

Arriving early, they fanned out into the borderlands of Labour’s awkward squad bench to seize all the seats for themselves, including Skinner’s. (More unobtrusively, Mhairi Black, the 20-year-old SNP prodigy, unobtrusively inserted herself behind enemy lines, and sat next to Diane Abbott amid a mass of Labour MPs.) But while they are 56, they underestimated the Bolsover one. By the time the proceedings began, the old ex-miner was firmly in his rightful place, chatting graciously to the SNP’s pony-tailed businessman Chris Law beside him. But it’s easy to be magnanimous in victory.

And behind the bonhomie there was edge in some of the jokes. The unanimous re-election of Bercow was not without irony, given that Cameron’s ministers had conducted a concerted – and vain – effort just before the election to ensure his fall.

Bercow’s proposer was the Tory Jacob Rees-Mogg, who pointed out, correctly, that the rise in urgent questions – a key irritant to the Government under this Speaker – had been “hugely important” and recalled that historically seven Speakers had “lost their heads” protecting MPs’ rights.

Cameron smiled benevolently even if he was wishing inwardly that Bercow could be the eighth. But the PM managed a lightly sarcastic crack about the media having been “unsure” during the election “about whether you are a Conservative. I am sure you find this as baffling as I did.”

And in some kid-gloved score settling with Nigel Farage, Cameron quoted Sir Gerald Kaufman, the new Father of the House: “If you are contemplating resigning … be entirely sure you want to go.”

From then on, all the party leaders said how marvellous Bercow was – he was a “giant” and the best since she was elected in 1982, declared Harriet Harman. But then you want to make sure your MPs catch the Speaker’s eye in debates.

In an otherwise packed house we noticed no Ed Miliband, no Nick Clegg – and no Alex Salmond. As he left, George Osborne was spotted shaking hands with Bercow – which was odd as, unlike Cameron’s, his expression had remained glacial during all the tributes to the Speaker. Was this letting bygones be bygones, a secret deal, or simply a mistake?

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