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Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Floods of praise for the PM – whatever next?


It was obviously Speaker Bercow’s day. Not only was there measurably less barracking – or “yobbery and public school twittishness” as he would prefer to call it – at Prime Minister’s Questions, but he was also able to enjoy a pleasurable tribute from his once sworn enemy, Nadine Dorries.

“May I take this opportunity to congratulate you, Mr Speaker, on your new role as chancellor of Bedfordshire University?” purred the flamboyant Scouserene, implying that no greater honour could be bestowed on her mid-Beds constituency.

But references to the Speaker’s robust attack last week on what, he recalled, the Prime Minister had once described as “Punch and Judy politics” were oblique. When David Cameron turned startlingly green (metaphorically rather than actually) by announcing that “man-made climate change is one of the most serious threats that this country and this world face”, Ed Miliband went for the pseudo-constructive Socratic dialogue approach: “Excellent; we are getting somewhere. I agree with what the Prime Minister said about the importance of climate change...”, before trying to persuade Cameron to disavow “climate change deniers” in his Government.

Which was Cameron’s cue to say – with more than a hint of sarcasm – that “this is obviously the new approach to Prime Minister’s questions: the right honourable gentleman comes to the House and praises the Prime Minister. I like the new style. I thought that I might miss Punch and Judy, but this is much more refreshing.” A dig at Miliband, of course, but since he and Bercow are not thought to be best pals, was it one at the Speaker as well?

But there was a problem. Were floods still the topic of the moment – including the Groundhog Day exchanges on who had spent more on defences? A few things had happened since they peaked, like meltdown in Ukraine and the hideously embarrassing collapse of the prosecution of the prime suspect for the 1982 Hyde Park bombing. A subject on whch Miliband was silent.

In the subsequent debate – in response to an urgent question from the Tory backbencher Laurence Robertson – the Attorney General Dominic Grieve, facing the cross-party wrath of Northern Ireland MPs, was just a trifle less than his normally super-reassuring self. Unsurprisingly given that he had to admit that 38 letters of the sort sent to John Downey had been dispatched to other people since the present Government took office.

Miliband’s reticence was unsurprising given that the accommodation of the On The Runs – entirely lawful, as Grieve kept stressing, where there was insufficient evidence to bring a prosecution – had been invented by the Blair government as a means of advancing the Northern Ireland peace process. But braving problems like that may be the price of making PMQs produce light as well as heat. If it ever happens of course.