Bruised by exhaustion, battered by fiendish and finickety parliamentary manoeuvres, Theresa May approached the despatch box at 5.46pm yesterday.
Deep though she plunged her well-buckets into her stoical core, she struggled to command a packed, bloodthirsty House.
Her voice cracked. Her eyes were pouched with fatigue. Beside her, Philip Hammond inspected the ceiling. Could have been a cravatted motorist gazing through his sun-roof on a summer evening’s pootle.
Mrs May’s majority had just gone gurgling down the khazi. Here she was, making the speech she should have begun five hours earlier had Speaker Bercow – a figure yesterday of astonishingly blithe bias – not thrown his spanners in the works.
‘At the start of five days of debate that will set the course our country takes for decades,’ she croaked, ‘it is worth taking a moment to reflect on how we got here.’
Theresa May (pictured left above) next to Philip Hammond (right) in the House of Commons
This drew hyena laughter from Labour. How she got here: her terrible general election, her fumbled Brussels negotiations, the Chequers ambush of ministers, and now her alienation of the DUP.
It was the Ulstermen that did for her in the procedural games. They and the waxen, papery-voiced Dominic Grieve (Legion d’Honneur party, Beaconsfield).
Of all the wearisomely wordy days I have known in the Commons, yesterday’s privilege debate about the Government being ‘in contempt’ of Parliament was possibly the worst for self-absorption and historical, lawyerly twirlytude.
So many little pinkies were extended at so many angles, largely for party advantage.
The privilege debate began at about 12.45pm with a speech of peachy pomposity from Labour’s ‘don’t call me Sir’ Keir Starmer.
‘This motion is extremely important,’ mewed Sir Keir, igniting snorts from MPs who suspected that he really meant ‘I am extremely important’.
Speaker Bercow boinged up to snarl at an unidentified Tory whom he accused of ‘yelling rather stupidly’ at Sir Keir.
When Sir Keir sat down at the end of his speech, and a Tory shouted ‘is that it?’, Mr Bercow took huffy offence on behalf of Sir Keir. ‘Yes, he has very clearly completed his speech,’ snapped Bercow.
Moments later, when Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom was describing Labour’s use of the Humble Address gambit as ‘an arcane parliamentary procedure’, this scurvy, stressy, trouble-stirring Speaker laughed scornfully, shook his head and pulled his face into an expression that appeared to say ‘Leadsom’s nuts’.
According to Quentin Letts Mrs May’s majority had just gone gurgling down the khazi
Having thus distinguished himself, Mr Bercow fell into happy conversation with one of the Labour Whips, a bearded creature from Ogmore.
The SNP’s Peter Grant – his droning makes Sir Bill Cash seem raffishly dynamic – insisted that ‘Parliament speaks on behalf of the people’.
But does it? On Brexit? That seems highly arguable. Most MPs detest the Leave vote delivered by record-millions of electors.
In the ‘contempt’ debate, Tory arch Remainer Grieve gave a dry legal lecture with reference to the 1689 Bill of Rights. Leaver Jacob Rees-Mogg (Con, NE Somerset) took us back to the 12th century.
Clever Leaver Michael Tomlinson (Con, Mid-Dorset) even quoted from a 19th century Hansard. Yeah yeah yeah, chaps. Gold stars for history. But please seize the present.
What did it mean, ‘contempt’? Few had a clue about that. No matter! The Government lost its vote.
That, for parliamentarians, is almost the only thing that matters and that was why the Labour women started ululating when they saw their Whips moving into the winning position before the result was announced.
Same thing when the Grieve amendment on a possible second referendum was announced. In the foetid cockpit of this plotting, polluting Parliament, fever took a grip.
In the central lobby the TV arc lights shone, rolling-news correspondents shouted, ministers blinked, Sir Keir preened. It all felt pulsating, febrile, a kingdom on the brink.
But the only contempt shown here, surely, was towards the electorate. Contempt for 17.4 million voters. A parliament of scoundrels planning to usurp the populace.
And a pop-eyed Mrs May caught in the brawling middle of it all.