We might have travelled back four centuries. Were we about to see a re-run of the War of Jenkins’ Ear, hopefully with a better military outcome?
This time, unlike the incident which sparked the conflict in 1739, Spanish coastguards had not mutilated a British sea captain. Instead, the Guardia Civil had done something just as taboo: violating hallowed protocol by opening one of our diplomatic pouches at the Spain-Gibraltar border.
There is nothing like Gibraltar to expose the inner jingoist in MPs of every party. Yesterday they raised each other as in some crazed form of martial poker. “May I put it to the minister that if anything like this ever happens again, the Spanish ambassador should be expelled from this country?” asked Labour’s Sir Gerald Kaufman – only to be outdone by the Tories’ Andrew Rosindell, who wanted him sent home now.
But this was just the warm-up. “Which Royal Navy warships are in the waters around Gibraltar?” asked Edward Leigh ominously. But he, too, was trumped by fellow Tory Peter Bone who suggested the Navy make a “goodwill” visit to Gibraltar – “preferably a couple of gunboats”.
The former Labour Foreign Office minister Peter Hain bravely suggested that Britain needed a “diplomatic strategy” which “respects the paramount rights of Gibraltarians but recognises that Spain... has an historic grievance”. This provoked patriotic chuntering. Robert Neill said Madrid was “stooping to the level of Franco’s government”, while his fellow Tory Nigel Evans pointed out that the last foreign regime to open a UK diplomatic bag had been Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe – “not the best of company to be associated with”.
Earlier, David Cameron had made a joke arising out Ed Miliband’s choice of Robbie Williams’ “Angels” on Desert Island Discs. “It’s fair to say he’s no longer a follower of Marx, he’s loving Engels instead.” As puns go this was – forgive me – as laboured as they come.
But unusually for the Wednesday “banter” – the PM’s own euphemism – between the party leaders, it was also harmless, maybe because it was so terrible.
Which is why Cameron seemed irritated that Miliband didn’t laugh. So could this presage a new, amicable approach to Prime Minister’s Questions? In your dreams.