On a Wednesday morning when the House is sitting, Members prepare for the usual gladiatorial contest across the despatch boxes, when Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition confront each other. Those clashes represent both the best and the worst of the House of Commons. But to-day was different, with the House united in remembrance of a great Lady, a Lady whose sustained popularity over decades mere politicians can only dream of. Who could have won a by-election against her, I thought.
Not everyone was in the Chamber – no doubt for good reason. I didn’t see the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary, the International Development Secretary, the Work and Pensions Secretary, or the Rural Affairs Secretary. Nor was Dennis Skinner in his place. And there were some gaps on our side as well. Not everyone was able to break commitments to return for the day, but I guess over two thirds of MP’s were in their place.
The session resembled an audience with the Queen Mother – at first formal, and at times tense. The Prime Minister seemed to me hesitant and nervous at the beginning of his speech; but as time went on, the House began to relax and reminisce. The mood changed perceptibly. The solemnity and reverence was always there, but mixed with humour and affection.
The frog that inhabits Iain Duncan Smith’s throat on most Wednesdays was absent, and he seemed more at ease. The first five speakers – the Prime Minister, Iain Duncan Smith, Charles Kennedy, Tam Dalyell and Alex Salmond were all either Scottish or had strong Scottish connections. Indeed one of the themes of the day was the Queen Mother’s deep attachment to that country, underlined by the speech of one of the Trustees of the Castle of Mey that they planned to open it to the public later in the summer – in accordance with her wishes.
Nearly all those who spoke did so because of the Queen Mother’s close association with their constituency or an organisation that they were close to. We heard from the MPs for Sandown Park, for the Cinque Ports, for Windsor Castle, for Sandringham, for Balmoral; we heard from a Church Commissioner who spoke of her deep faith.
Ian Paisley, whom we don’t hear very often, seemed a shadow of his former self. His voice was at times barely audible, as he quoted extensively from Psalms and the scriptures.
I feared that the House would not be able to sustain a two hour session without degenerating into cliché or repetition; I was wrong. Members did not speak unless they had something specific to say, and they said it well and briefly. Nicholas Soames, who probably knew the Queen Mother better than anyone else, spoke brilliantly, emphasing the way the Queen Mother treated everyone exactly the same. She never dissembled, or pretended to be something she was not. Each person she spoke to seemed to be at the centre of her world.
The House stopped at just the right moment; anything shorter than two hours can the risk of seeming disrespectful. Anything longer ran the risk of losing the attention of the Chamber.
So we adjourned for a week, to return to business as usual. Or will all those who there have chahged a little bit.