The Sketch: Bercow was called a 'stupid, sanctimonious dwarf'. Nobody was that suprised

Speakers always have a moment when they have to impose their will on the mob

Obviously you want to know how a more integrated public health system is going to result from the abolition of central targets. As do I. But it would be unprofessional not to start with the news.

After a grinding session with Andrew Lansley going on about how he'd never close down medical facilities that local people wanted (it would be the local authorities doing the axe-work) we were dozing a bit. Frankly we were drifting on a painted sea.

And then in the way of the Commons, we went without warning into a floor-of-the-House squall with the Speaker. Or "the stupid, sanctimonious dwarf" as Simon Burns called him.

You don't often hear a Speaker called stupid, or sanctimonious or indeed a dwarf. "Stupid" is too judgmental for modern ears. "Academically under-achieving owing to the five classic symptoms of deprivation" – that's the way we say "stupid". "Dwarf" isn't used at all in polite society let alone in the House of Commons. Only "sanctimonious" is drawing room language; we all disapprove of that frightful, ghastly middle-class vice of sanctimony.

Sticking the word on the back of the Speaker's gown is one thing – but to call him that in public, 12 feet in front of him on the front bench... I'm not sure there's a word to describe it.

For Burns to glare at him, to make a comedy face by pulling his upper lip into a canine snarl, and to call him a stupid dwarf in a way that the sketch writers could make out what he was saying... What can we say? After 50 minutes of Health questions it was damned public spirited of him.

Labour couldn't help laughing. Kerry McCarthy was so astonished her nimble fingers had posted it on Twitter before the laughter died down. Burns was still making gestures with his hand to show how dwarfish the Speaker is. "That high!" his hand kept saying. "Dwarf! Stupid! Sanctimonious and stupid!"

In his defence – if you think he needs defending – he had been rebuked twice by the Speaker for not addressing the Opposition. "May I say gently," is Bercow's way of annoying people, and he "gently" told Burns to face the front and talk to the Opposition.

It's a new ruling, and certainly wrong. MPs conventionally address the chair not the opposition. The second time Burns turned back Bercow told him more sharply to face the front and this triggered the retaliation. The verbal attack. The faces. The gestures. The Twittering, the laughter from the opposition.

The Speaker ignored it all. We don't know why. He was happy enough to pick a quarrel with Burns, and in the previous parliament had chastised him calling him "boring" and "boorish", it isn't as if he's afraid of the fellow.

But when Ian Paisley on a point of order asked whether a minister should "berate, scoff and scold and hiss at the chair", Bercow waved it away. He seemed to say he hadn't heard or seen anything. "Nothing was recorded," he said nonchalantly, with suspicious sang froid.

It's impossible not to notice Burns – with his vast face and rubbery lips. He's got a charismatic, carrying voice textured with tobacco smoke and whiskey. When he calls you a stupid dwarf you register it, you record it.

Speakers always have a moment when their authority is challenged and he or she has to impose their will on the mob; this hasn't happened yet with Bercow. It's something we have to look forward to. He's done surprisingly well for such a pipsqueak but it can't last forever.

The Father of the House should step in and ask whether "stupid, sanctimonious dwarf" are now terms acceptable to the chair. Alas, I don't think Peter Tapsell is nasty enough.

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