An unusual atmosphere befell the Commons yesterday. There were no heckles, no cheers, no boisterous yah-boos. Instead, for one afternoon, MPs were simply united in respect.
And for those of us used to the place resembling a toddlers’ creche, it was all rather unnerving – though no less touching for that.
Unwavering appreciation for Prince Philip.
There was a bowed head, flags-at-half-mast flavour. Elegant dress code all around, everyone smartly kitted out in black.
Grandees Sir Peter Bottomley and Sir Iain Duncan Smith had put on their penguin suits. Even the SNP’s normally peevish Ian Blackford had retrieved his ceremonial kilt out of mothballs. From beneath it poked two dimpled knees, whiter than a pair of milk bottles.
Following a minute’s silence, Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle described the duke as ‘the father of the nation’ who would be ‘sorely missed and impossible to replace’.
House of Commons holding a minute’s silence in remembrance of HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, in London, April 12
‘He never let the Queen down,’ said Sir Lindsay, his Lancastrian twang gulping sorrowfully.
Boris Johnson spoke as though he’d lost a revered uncle. He acknowledged Philip might have been ’embarrassed or even exasperated’ at the gushing tributes over the past few days, but ‘he made this country a better place.’ The Prime Minister, incidentally, having secured a haircut in the morning, still displayed a ruffled hotpotch of a thing – but a vast improvement on the mess which appeared on the steps of Downing Street last Friday.
One can only imagine how Philip might have reacted to the PM turning up at Buckingham Palace looking such a shambles. He’d probably have hauled him off into a side office for a lengthy talking to. Boris alluded to some of the duke’s gamier moments or, as he put it, his propensity to ‘drive a coach and horses through the finer points of diplomatic protocol’ as a means of ‘breaking the ice’.
He said this with a wry smile. After all, Boris’s own dealings with our overseas friends have not been without the odd pipe-bomb moment. Sir Keir Starmer prepared a fine speech. Courteous. Warm without being too syrupy. Such a pity then that more Labour MPs didn’t turn up in person to witness it. Less than half a dozen showed by my count.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson giving his tribute to the Duke of Edinburgh in the House of Commons, London
Boris Johnson speaking during a Humble Address expressing the sympathies of the House on the death of Britain’s Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, at the House of Commons on April 12
More from Henry Deedes for the Daily Mail…
Sir Keir described Philip as a ‘symbol of the nation we hope to be at our best’. Telling how he took part in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme as a teenager – which involved frantically trying to find his way around Dartmoor with a compass and a map in the pouring rain – he said: ‘If that doesn’t prepare you for coming into politics, nothing will.’
Mr Blackford described Philip as ‘not a man for drizzling honey on his words’. He recalled Philip’s advice on the duration of speeches: ‘What the backside cannot endure, the brain cannot endure.’ Sadly it’s not a lesson windbag Blackford heeded. ‘Remarkable’ was a word we heard a lot throughout the afternoon. We heard, too, about how he was ‘ahead of his time’.
Sir Roger Gale (Con, North Thanet) pointed to his support for environmental issues which long pre-dated the green lobby. ‘How we wish we’d listened to him 50 years ago,’ Sir Roger mused. Mother of the House Harriet Harman praised the duke’s decision to put himself second in his marriage – a move which she said was ‘profoundly counter-cultural at the time’.
Sir Keir described Philip as a ‘symbol of the nation we hope to be at our best’
Other members recalled personal encounters with Philip. Theresa May, sporting some aggressive crocodile skin boots, remembered visiting Balmoral when she was prime minister and the duke sending her and her husband off on a walk which ended up taking several hours.
You could hardly blame the old boy. Can you imagine having Mays to stay all weekend? The small talk would be agony.
Sir Iain recalled meeting the duke at a function and being asked what he did. ‘Nothing important,’ replied IDS. And the duke swiftly moved on. Again, you can hardly blame him. The tributes lasted long into the evening. Some 137 MPs spoke in total. What would Philip have made of it all?
Almost certainly, he would have growled and told them all to do something better with their time…