The first session of the Commons after last Thursday's bomb attacks in London was always going to be a sombre occasion. And that was appropriate. The week after London's gravest peacetime attacks was no time for British politics as usual. Even so, for those inured to the fierce cut and thrust of Commons debate - raucous and gratuitously personalised - yesterday's proceedings were a revelation.
We saw and heard the Prime Minister addressing the House with the same dignity, assurance and verbal precision that have characterised his public response from the start. Yesterday's wide-ranging statement started exactly where it should have done, with the victims of the atrocities; it paid tribute where tribute was due, before summarising the state of the investigation and the arrangements in place to help families of the victims and the survivors.
Mr Blair offered explanations on three particular concerns. On the possibility of pre-empting the attacks, he said that there had been no intelligence specific enough to prevent what had happened. On providing help for the bereaved, he said that 74 families had now been allocated liaison officers. And on the apparent slowness of the authorities to identify the victims, he said there was great concern not to repeat mistakes made elsewhere in previous bombings and disasters, when wrong identifications had caused much distress to the families. He held out the prospect of further counter-terrorist legislation, but not before the autumn.
Separately, the components of the statement might seem prosaic. But there was a calm directness about them that has not always distinguished the Prime Minister's statements in the House. The sole purpose of any understatement, it seemed, was to spare the victims and their families, not to conceal government failings. The admission about lack of intelligence was a far cry from the sales pitch for intelligence data we heard so often in the months before the war in Iraq. In all, this was a statement mercifully shorn of spin and self-justification. It did not pretend more than it could deliver.
And what was this we heard from the leader of the Opposition? A series of compliments on the Government's response and on Mr Blair's comportment in particular. Michael Howard, to his credit, also retreated full speed from a call he had been expected to make for an inquiry. The Opposition, he said, would give the Government its full support; it would offer constructive suggestions, and a "limited inquiry might be held in due course", but now was not the time. Indeed, it is not.
There are questions, big and small, to be answered. They relate to intelligence, to the provision of support to survivors and to why the CCTV on the No 30 bus was not working. But these are questions to which everyone wants an answer; they should not be politicised. For now, there are other, practical, priorities.
Charles Kennedy, for the Liberal Democrats, was equally supportive, stressing the statements from Muslim representatives and the imperative for cool heads to prevail. The MPs who spoke largely echoed these sentiments, contributing to an occasion of dignity in a common cause.
It will not be long, we are certain, before the Commons returns to the hammer and tongs rhetoric that belongs to the adversarial tradition of our Parliament. And our politics thrives on it: we look forward to a time when the Opposition is more effective than it has recently been. But there is surely a lesson to be taken from yesterday's quiet expressions of support and determination. Straight-talking, constructive suggestions and compliments (when due) also belong in politics. We hope to hear more of them from Westminster in future.Reuse content