The Beast of Bolsover must have been slumbering when Black Rod entered the House of Commons to summon MPs to the House of Lords. Ears were cocked and necks were craned as MPs waited for the Dennis Skinner one-liner, now almost as much a part of parliamentary tradition as the pageantry of the Queen’s Speech.
Alas, the customary bon mot from Skinner was not forthcoming. Skinner later explained that he did not heckle this year because he was too “preoccupied” with his fight with the SNP over which bum should go on which seat.
“Bottom-gate”, as the row has been elegantly christened, has seen Skinner rise at six in the morning to ensure that none of the Nats are able to nick his space on the “awkward squad” bench he has occupied for the past 40 years. Skinner’s tormentors, on the other hand, were making their substantial presence felt as the third-largest party in the Commons.
Temporarily setting aside their distaste for unelected Upper Chambers, SNP MPs were among those crowding into the Lords to listen to the Queen. For politicians intent on breaking up a Union (albeit a political rather than matrimonial one), they looked suspiciously like wedding guests, with their smart buttonholes.
The flowers decorating their lapels were not carnations, however. They were “little white roses of Scotland”, worn in homage to the Hugh MacDiarmid poem of the same name. “The rose of all the world is not for me,” wrote MacDiarmid. “I want for my part, only the little white rose of Scotland – That smells sharp and sweet, and breaks the heart.”
But for the SNP, yesterday’s occasion was not so much about their broken hearts as breaking with tradition. They incurred the displeasure of sticklers for parliamentary protocol by clapping their Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, when he spoke. Three times points made by Robertson were applauded. It was with some exasperation that Speaker John Bercow urged them to respect the long-established no-clapping convention.
With some relish, Alex Salmond referred to the dramatically reinforced SNP benches when he stood up to speak. He had “brought a few friends” along, he said. His return to the Commons was acknowledged by David Cameron, who noted the former SNP leader was now the party’s foreign affairs spokesman. Cameron assumed Salmond’s definition of foreign affairs would include matters pertaining to England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The acting leader of the opposition, Harriet Harman, had her sights set on Cameron, cheekily addressing him as “one interim leader to another”. Turning to the SNP she predicted that the “Bottom-gate” saga was far from over. “The Lion might have roared in Scotland, but don’t mess with the Beast of Bolsover,” said Harman – a warning the SNP declined to applaud.