Considering the distractions, Liz Truss did well to survive her debut as Environment Secretary.
The first distraction was that her Food minister, George Eustice, sat on her. He had answered a question from the right-wing Tory Philip Davies, pursuing his crusade for the labelling of kosher and halal meat, and sank backwards on to the front bench. Or rather, into the unwelcoming lap of Truss, who gave a strangled yelp. “That’s one way of ingratiating oneself with a new Secretary of State,” said Davies, who lacks undue reverence for the ministerial classes.
The other was the spellbinding sight of the Tory MP Charlotte Leslie, shoes off, curled up gracefully, yogically even, on her bench, rubbing her feet. But she was there for a purpose. Springing to life, she complained crossly about the “slow” Environment Agency response to the “unacceptable infestation of flies” suffered by her Avonmouth constituents.
Though new to this torrid controversy, Truss said she was awaiting a court decision on the issue but would discuss it with Leslie. This had to wait since the MP left before the end, perhaps to stretch out more comfortably in St James’s Park. But with a rural constituency – as she kept pointing out – Truss seemed to fit the job. Her trouser suit (no Daily Mail catwalk alert needed here; this is political) was a judicious fusion of Tory blue and environmentalist green. Only once – answering an impenetrable question from Labour’s Alan Whitehead on food “packaging recovery note offsets” did she resort to the safety-net formula of promising to discuss it with “my junior ministers”, a phrase to savour if you were a junior minister yourself three days ago.
Meanwhile, the new Commons leader William Hague was liberated as his old witty self. Asked by his Labour shadow Angela Eagle for an emergency debate on the Lib Dems’ bedroom-tax U-turn he got laughs all round by declaring you couldn’t do that “on every occasion they change their policy”. Hague said he had asked for the Commons job. In stark contrast – and exceptionally for these weekly parliamentary business sessions – the new, and surely more reluctant, Chief Whip Michael Gove was absent.
First Church Commissioner Tony Baldry joined Labour’s Helen Goodman in celebrating the Synod’s agreement on women bishops, using words that could have also been a welcome for Truss. They’re ones you don’t often hear in the Commons: “Hallelujah, sister.”