QUENTIN LETTS: Starmer’s gambit backfired like a vintage Lagonda, leaving a broken Sir Lindsay on the verge of tears

Mutiny on the Thames. At Westminster last night there was parliamentary pandemonium after Sir Keir Starmer and his Labour boot-boys were caught fiddling with the rules. Such was the din that no one could even hear the final vote, which duly ended in disarray.

And in the chair of the Commons, under that great canopy which supposedly symbolises impartiality, we had, I’m afraid, a broken, apologetic, compromised Speaker on the verge of tears after making a dreadful hash of things.

It was the day of the Gaza debate. Scots Nats had chosen the Middle East war for one of their rare opposition-day debates. Long custom suggested their motion would be put and likely amended by the Government. But that was going to place Labour in a party-discipline pickle, because many of its MPs agreed with the SNP’s pro-Palestinian stance.

And so Sir Keir, having learned nothing from his attempts in 2019 to block Brexit, slid his practised fingers into the workings of parliamentary procedure and tried to twist a few constitutional cogs.

Sir Lindsay Hoyle apologised after he was accused of having ‘undermined the confidence’ of the House

A row erupted after the Commons Speaker allowed MPs to vote on a Labour motion on the Israel-Hamas conflict

A row erupted after the Commons Speaker allowed MPs to vote on a Labour motion on the Israel-Hamas conflict

Like a vintage Lagonda, Sir Keir’s gambit later backfired spectacularly — a great ‘kaboom!’ — and by the day’s close he was left with oil, or something else brown and liquid, all over his flat face. During the first part of the day the Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, was absent from his chamber. We learned he was locked in argument with Sir Keir in the Reasons Room, a tiny space behind the Speaker’s chair where the ushers keep tissues and bottles of water. Sir Keir — the living saint who is forever lecturing us on the rule of law — was applying thumbscrews to poor, weak Speaker Hoyle.

Labour’s chief of staff, Sue Gray, was reportedly spotted in the vicinity. Ms Gray is the delicate ethicist who found fault with Boris Johnson’s hygiene. In the chamber meanwhile, Labour MPs bought Sir Keir time by making points of order and filibustering in a debate about minibuses. That was done by Sir Chris Bryant (Rhondda), another moist sermoniser about Commons conduct.

Sir Lindsay emerged from the broom cupboard to announce his maverick decision to abandon convention and do Labour its favour. ‘Shameful!’ shouted Scots Nats, jabbing fingers at him. ‘Moving the goalposts!’ cried one woman. ‘Cheat!’

And words one never expected to hear: ‘Bring back Bercow!’ That came from a sarcastic Sir Desmond Swayne (Con, New Forest West), one of Speaker Bercow’s sternest critics.

I have known and liked Sir Lindsay for years. He is nowhere near Bercow in the goblin league. But whatever happened in the Reasons Room he was looking extraordinarily hassled. His ears were pinned back. His face was puce. When he climbed back on to his high seat, his hands was shaking as he took a gulp of water.

SNP MP Stephen Flynn speaking in the Commons earlier today

SNP MP Stephen Flynn speaking in the Commons earlier today

Some said Sir Keir threatened to drum him out of the Speakership after the election. If that is true, it is a considerable scandal. Even if it is not true, the reaction to Sir Lindsay’s announcement, which was instant, loud, prolonged and derisive, was the noise of a Speaker’s reputation balloon-pffffting out of the window.

There was open impertinence, even while he was on his feet. Mhairi Black (SNP, Paisley) rocked to and fro and cackled abuse. She spent the next few minutes staring venomously at the Speaker in an ‘I’ll fix you proper in the alley later, pal’ way.

‘Just let me finish,’ Sir Lindsay tried saying. But he had lost the house. He tried threatening to eject some of the people yelling abuse at him. They laughed.

William Wragg (Con, Hazel Grove) was soon striding to the clerks’ table with a crumpled piece of paper expressing lack of confidence in Sir Lindsay. Mr Wragg was one of his original backers for the Speakership. In the margins I saw the Government’s chief whip, Simon Hart, with Sir Lindsay’s secretary. She looked apologetic.

When Scots Nats kept clapping each other and Sir Lindsay tried to tell them that was against custom, they shouted ‘we’ve decided it’s a new rule’.

Leader of the House Penny Mordaunt speaking as the Commons descended into chaos today

Leader of the House Penny Mordaunt speaking as the Commons descended into chaos today

By evening things deteriorated further. The leader of the Commons, Penny Mordaunt imperiously regretted that the Speaker had ‘inserted himself’ in Labour internal politics. ‘It’s a fix!’ bellowed Argyll’s Brendan O’Hara, to widespread shouts of agreement.

Soon there was a mass walkout by the SNP and a large number of Tories, but not before the SNP leader, Stephen Flynn, demanded ‘where is the Speaker?’ For Sir Lindsay had gone awol again. Hiding, perhaps.

He was forced to crawl back to the chamber and admit he had boobed. The grovel itself was reasonably well done. Then he skedaddled again and the turmoil resumed.

Once again, Labour’s machine politicians have bent a Speaker out of shape. If they do this in opposition, imagine what it will be like if they’re in charge.

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