Much of this week has been about size, or rather littleness. At the beginning of the 1980s, when Britain was beginning its recovery under Margaret Thatcher and ceasing to be the sick man of Europe, while the Falklands was about to enhance our presige, another small factor played a part in our national rehabilitation. The House of Commons had agreed to be televised and the result was cracking good TV. Americans in particular were enthralled. They did not believe that any of their politicians could have coped with the cockpit of Prime Minister’s Questions. They were also impressed by the ring-master of the cockpit, the then Speaker, George Thomas. His performance seemed effortless. He could restore order in a trice, with authority and wit. All this helped to encourage the world to take us seriously. Mr Speaker Thomas might have added half a point to our GDP.
How different matters are today. George Thomas was a great Speaker. His first two successors, Jack Weatherall and Betty Boothroyd, were both competent. Then everything went downhill. In the Blair years, a triumphant Labour majority wanted to demonstrate its power by making a thick prole the Speaker of the House of Commons. So they chose Mick Martin, who did what it said on the tin. But he at least had a certain dignity.
The Labour party was also in a position to choose his successor. By convention, it ought to have been a Tory. So they fixed on the Tory whom the Tory party would find most unacceptable and correctly lighted on John Bercow. He had no dignity whatsoever. This is an outrage, for the Speakership is far too important to be left to the outcome of a partisan tease. It is possible that Mr Bercow is the worst Speaker of all time. It is certain that anyone who would claim that bad eminence for another wretch would have a lot to prove. No more undignified creature has ever occupied this high office.
Even a Royalist must reluctantly acknowledge that William Lenthall was the greatest of Speakers. His words reverberate down the ages, for all time: “I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak…but as this House is pleased to direct me whose servant I am.” In Mr Bercow’s case, his tongue is at the direction of his ego. Earlier this week, without consulting the House whose servant he is, he insulted the President of the United States. There is an argument that Mr Trump should just brush Mr Bercow aside, like a wasp at a picnic. There is also a case for the President decreeing that as long as he is in the White House, this strutting little ponce of a Speaker will never be admitted to the United States. Any patriotic subject of Her Majesty would think it shameful that a Speaker of the House of Commons should fall under such a ban. Any patriotic subject of Her Majesty should also think it shameful that John Bercow is the Speaker of the House of Commons.
There is a lesson in all this, for Donald Trump. It may be that he will remain happily unaware of the despicable Bercow’s existence. If so, lucky fellow. But if our Britannic embarrassments are drawn to his attention, he might consider motes and beams; the duty of those who hold great offices to uphold them with dignity. It is time for the President to give up tweeting. If he will not do so, the Senate should propose a constitutional amendment, to prohibit Presidents from twittering while in office.
No one could accuse Mrs May of twittering. On Wednesday, the floor of the House of Commons witnessed an earthquake – and nobody noticed. At Prime Minister’s Questions, with the help of leaked documents, local authority malpractice and ministerial incompetence, Jeremy Corbyn was presented with an open goal. The sight of their leader confronting a goalmouth normally appals the Labour party. They know that the easier the opportunity, the more likely that Mr Corbyn will squander it. This time, however, he surprised us all. He put the ball in the net.
Not that it mattered. No Tory MP felt undermined by his Leader’s failure. It was just one of those things: a combination of circumstances which would have defeated a much fleeter-footed Parliamentarian than Theresa May. At present, it would be hard to find a Tory MP in a Labour/Tory marginal who is worried about losing his seat. Equally, outside the Corbyn rump, hardly any Labour MPs felt reassured. Indeed, the large majority of Labour Corbo-sceptics were almost depressed. If he had messed up on Wednesday, it might just have brought his downfall nearer.
So: few prime ministers have enjoyed such a lack of Parliamentary opposition as Mrs May. None has done less to exploit it. Six months after she became PM, Mrs May is still unknown. What does she believe in: what principles animate her commitment to politics? It is said that she admires Geoffrey Boycott. That may not be a good idea. Geoff Boycott was a tenacious opening batsman who enjoyed grafting out runs. That was all very well in difficult circumstances. But when there was a chance to open his shoulders, score all around the wicket, rattle along the scoreboard, thrill the crowd, Boycott was not the man. Theresa May could now move beyond the competence which she undoubtedly possesses and build a coalition, moral, intellectual, political, based on a vision of Britain expounded in exalted language. But even among Tories who wish her well, there is a fear that this is beyond her: that she is locked into small-mindedness and mean-spiritedness, that she cannot expand her personality to encompass her opportunities – that she is stuck in Boycottism.
If so, she will be missing one of the finest opportunities in British political history. Moreover, political nature abhors a vacuum. Sooner or later, some how, an opposition will emerge. When that happens, on present showing, she will be unable to cope.