Adjournment debate,’ said Speaker Bercow as the House prepared to close last night. ‘Mr Gordon Brown!’ And there, I kid ye not, swayed the rare, sleeked, timorous beastie hi’self, the Rt Hon Member for Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath. His first speech in the Chamber for more than a year.
Where on earth has he been? Let that question await another day. Yesterday was an occasion to marvel at his long-absent featherings, his much-missed lines. Howard Hughes was in the building!
Adjournment debates last half an hour. They are parliamentary tailpieces. They usually attract a crowd of two or three.
Yesterday there were perhaps 30 Members in the House, though it grieves me to report that as soon as the name of Mr Brown was uttered by Speaker Bercow there was a surge for the exits. The previous debate (which had been interminable, or so it seemed) had been about Scotland. Most taking part were Scots. Plainly they felt no sense of clan loyalty to the fallen prime minister.
Among those who legged it were the former chancellor, Alistair Darling, and former Lib Dem leader, Charlie Kennedy. Now I wonder: where he can have been headed, like a greyhound chasing a rabbit?
Mr Brown had entered 16 minutes earlier at 6.44pm, accompanied by his parliamentary private secretary, a Miss McGovern. He had been fidgety, uncomfortable in this Chamber he had once ruled (and sometimes commanded but never quite conquered).
He folded his arms, unfolded them, fiddled with his liquorice-stripe tie, leaned back and closed his eyes, leaned forward and chewed on his tongue or his lip or on the bitter pill of regret. He moved position. He had ants in his pants. He was like a wee lad before his Grade II piano examination.
When the moment for his speech arrived, he leapt up, placed some notes at his side, and spoke clearly. He did so without shouting, without gabbling, without pointing and without doing a King-Lear-on-the-heath-routine. So that was good.
And yet the manner had not much changed from his frontbench days. One could discern no air of the senior former statesman, as used to be the case when John Major addressed the House after leaving high office.
But Mr – now Sir John – Major sensibly and honourably and generously and amiably and with that well-honed sense of public duty, graced the House with frequent speeches from the backbenches between 1997 and 2001. By making himself such an infrequent visitor, Mr Brown had done himself no favours.
If a few people gawped at him last night, he really had only himself to blame. Up in the press gallery, we blunt nibs were in a minor fever. The Speaker’s wife had dragged herself away from her life of blameless domesticity to take her accustomed, regal place in one of the side galleries. At least I think it was her and not some female impersonator.
Down in the gubbins of the Chamber, by the double doors, there formed a crescent of MPs, watching with curiosity. A couple held their chins. Among them was the Attorney-General, Dominic Grieve, the SDLP’s Mark Durkan, Scots Viscount Thurso (a Lib Dem MP) and Alan Campbell, a Labour whip.
Iain Duncan Smith, Pensions Secretary, was on the Government bench. Behind Mr Brown sat five burly Labour men. They could have been bodyguards, or pall bearers. The air was a little funereal.
Phil Wilson, a Labour man who now occupies Tony Blair’s old seat, sat in a little dicky-box, picking his teeth. Jon Ashworth, a newcomer from Leicester, played with his mobile telephone. Rory Stewart (Con) seemed to be doing some t’ai chi exercises.
Mr Brown’s subject last night was the fate of a couple of Remploy factories in his Fifeshire heartland. Remploy plants are staffed by the disabled.
As another Labour MP put it, ‘they have a pride in their work, they make a significant contribution, they have cut their deficit’. And you cannot say that about everyone. Can you?
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