QUENTIN LETTS: Memo to Sir Lindsay – never get in a cupboard with Boris Becker or Keir Rodney Starmer

Sir Lindsay Hoyle’s two fists betrayed his bleakness. As he sat in the Speaker’s chair listening to a brutally direct call for his resignation from the SNP’s Stephen Flynn, Sir Lindsay’s hands clenched like Brazil nuts. They were so tight that the skin started to mottle.

What with his scarlet face and a mouth drawn into the taut roundel of an ink-well, those whitening knuckles spoke of the immense tension racking his frame.

Speaker Hoyle was gripping on for dear life.

Twenty-four hours earlier, Sir Lindsay had caved in to pressure from Sir Keir Starmer to bend parliamentary rules in Labour’s favour. The two men disappeared into a tiny room for what was reported as a blazing row. Important rule in life, children: never enter a cupboard with Boris Becker or Sir Keir Rodney Starmer.

Sir Lindsay Hoyle was persuaded by Sir Keir to bend parliamentary rules in Labour¿s favour

Sir Lindsay Hoyle was persuaded by Sir Keir to bend parliamentary rules in Labour’s favour

Sir Lindsay, acting against advice from his clerks, was duly Beckered, if we can put it like that. He caved in and did Sir Keir’s bidding. Why? What happened in that hot little room? A Socratic dialogue between brother socialists? Or something less wholesome?

‘Dark arts and blackmail’ suggested Patricia Gibson (SNP, North Ayrshire) yesterday. Blackmail? From Labour’s nasal knight, who as opposition leader has depicted himself as such a saintly defender of probity and propriety? Surely not!

Politics is a rough old game, yet it felt somehow voyeuristic to watch Sir Lindsay as he sat through Mr Flynn’s attack. ‘We do not believe you can continue in your role as Speaker,’ said cadaverous, shaven-headed Mr Flynn. Unlike Macbeth, the piercingly direct Flynn stabs a chap in the front, while he is fully awake.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer reportedly had a blazing row with Sir Lindsay

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer reportedly had a blazing row with Sir Lindsay

Sir Lindsay rose to wring forth another despairing apology. The first came on Wednesday night, after his collaboration with Labour provoked a mass walkout in the Commons. Yesterday’s apology was less of a three-Kleenex job but it was still hard to watch a man so clearly thrashing in the waves for his political life. Sir Lindsay begged MPs to believe his sorrow. ‘I made a mistake. We do make mistakes and I own up to mine.’

He claimed, in so many words, that he did Sir Keir that favour to prevent MPs being murdered. The logic of this argument did not bear close scrutiny, but Sir Lindsay was in an emotional state and the Commons is not without its sentimental streak.

Almost whimpering, he spoke of his ‘duty of care’ to MPs, and how some of the police advice he received about threats to MPs’ safety was ‘absolutely frightening’. To my palate, he overdid the cheese by several ounces, but enough MPs mooed supportively to suggest he’d survive the day.

To see a grown man grovel is never edifying, for supplicant or spectator. Make no mistake, these were perilous hours for the 66-year-old Speaker. For the house’s third party to call for the Speaker’s departure was extremely grave. In addition to the Scots Nats (whose Wednesday debate on Gaza was wrecked by Sir Lindsay’s capitulation to Sir Keir) several Tory backbenchers and one independent MP were demanding for Sir Lindsay to quit.

Three of the would-be assassins, Tory MPs William Wragg (Hazel Grove), Gary Sambrook (Birmingham Northfield) and Eddie Hughes (Walsall North), sat in a row at the start of the day’s debates, making their presence obvious to Sir Lindsay. The Speaker showed no spark. His voice was leaden, his gaze almost dead.

His morale started to lift as a succession of Tory grandees approached the Chair to kiss the ring. ‘You have my full support,’ boomed Sir Edward Leigh (Con, Gainsborough), happy for this intimate assurance be heard by us inkies up in the Press gallery. Sir John Redwood (Wokingham) and Sir John Hayes (South Holland & the Deepings) fluttered down to press his arm. It was like seeing mourners comfort a widower at a wake.

Lindsay Hoyle arrived in the Commons as a Labour MP in 1997. After Tony Blair’s landslide win, new-boy Hoyle provided an attractive dash of no-nonsense Lancastrianism. He laughed a lot, spoke up for Gibraltar and the Commonwealth and was plainly good company.

Not one of life’s Europhile modernisers, nor the most cerebral of souls, he was never likely to become a Blairite minister. But he had an ear for emotive soundbites. After Princess Diana died, the young Hoyle campaigned for Heathrow airport to be renamed in the blessed Diana’s memory. Corny, but he had a nose for publicity.

In 2010 he was elected Deputy Speaker, where, lucky chap, he served under that batey bantam John Bercow. This had its downsides, for Speaker Bercow was not companionable; politically, mind you, it was advantageous.

Sir Lindsay, as he became in 2018, was seen as the good cop to Bercow’s bully. By the time Mr Bercow finally quit in 2019, the Commons was heartily sick of an activist Speaker who bent parliamentary customs to suit his own political agenda. Sir Lindsay promised to restore trust in the chair. He promised to revere the rule book.

Palestinians search for bodies and survivors after an Israeli air strike this week

Palestinians search for bodies and survivors after an Israeli air strike this week

That, in part, is why there’s been such disgust about his behaviour on Wednesday. MPs were appalled by the thought that Sir Keir — who with other Europhiles collaborated with Bercow to bypass the rules and try to block Brexit — was again up to no good.

Interfering with parliament’s constitution is as bad as fiddling with the workings of a grandfather clock. Proponents may claim they’re merely trying to bring things up to date, but the delicate cogs and pendulums are thrown out of balance. The damage can be costly.

Sir Lindsay is not the only one bruised by this episode. The Labour Whips, who were up to their oxters in the discredited Speakerships of Michael Martin and John Bercow, have again been caught trying to nobble the ref. And they still didn’t grasp this yesterday. Sir Lindsay made a brief appearance in the Commons tea room in the morning and was cheered in a partisan way by Labour MPs. This added to the sense that Labour regarded Sir Lindsay with a proprietorial air.

At business questions at noon the Shadow Leader of the House, Lucy Powell, made a tin-eared contribution seeking to blame everyone else for Wednesday’s scandal. Ms Powell has not had a good week. She was properly monstered by her opposite number, Penny Mordaunt. Tossing her blonde mane, flaring her nostrils, Ms Mordaunt concluded that Labour had put narrow party advantage ‘before the reputation and honour of the decent man who sits in the Speaker’s Chair’.

Labour MPs tried to drown out Ms Mordaunt by cackling theatrically (Ben Bradshaw), by heckling (Ms Powell) and even by blowing a raspberry (anonymous). Suddenly Sir Keir’s Labour is looking like the nasty party. Any idea that this ‘government in waiting’ is squeakily ethical has gone.

If I had to bet, it would be on Sir Lindsay surviving in the Chair, despite the SNP’s opposition. The Tory instinct is to shy away from Speaker-cide. They sense that the institution is worth more than any displeasure with its temporary occupant.

There is also the fact that Sir Lindsay is a broadly amiable figure and that he is not bookish. ‘Is intelligence not essential?’ you will ask. Well, no. Bercow was super-intellectual and that irritated people. There is a certain political value in honest dimness. But honest it must be.

The Hoyle Speakership is probably irrevocably damaged but it may yet limp on. The more immediate impact may be that the public can now see the character of Sir Keir Starmer, who for all the wrong reasons abandoned protocol and tried to stitch up a dear, dozy sheepdog of a Speaker and has left him with a distinctly dry nose and two tightly-clenched paws.

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