The deckchairs had been well and truly rearranged on the Tory benches. Too many MPs and not nearly enough seats. A few old-timers looked visibly displeased that some young upstarts had nicked their usual places. Desmond Swayne had been shunted right to the very back – well out of sight of the TV cameras without which he doesn’t know he exists – and resorted to vaulting over a 6ft barricade to make sure he could leave at the same time as his friends. An activity that almost left the Tory MP with a broken back. Boris Johnson wasn’t too bothered. With a majority of 80 he can afford a little collateral damage.
There were no such problems on the Labour benches where everyone pretty much had two spaces to themselves. Harriet Harman briefly commandeered Dennis Skinner’s old place. The Beast of Camberwell. Maybe not. Emily Thornberry kept turning round, as if still unable to believe that so many old comrades would not be returning. Or perhaps she was just hustling for a good libel lawyer.
All the other Labour MPs appeared to be at different stages of grief. Some were angry, others in denial. Most were just depressed. None had yet reached acceptance. That may take years.
The only cheers that greeted the arrival of Jeremy Corbyn came from the Tory benches: after all, he’d done more to guarantee a Conservative victory than any cabinet minister. No Labour MP could even bring themselves to look him in the eye. Corbyn appeared physically and mentally crushed: his movements reduced to robotic jerks, his speech a listless monotone. A man with severe PTSD being pushed into going through the motions so that others can fight over his legacy.
After a brief interlude for some Black Rod ceremonials, Lindsay Hoyle allowed himself to be re-elected as Speaker. For the occasion, he had allowed his old friend and constituency neighbour, Lisa Nandy, to propose him. She needed no second invitation to use the opportunity as a can’t-even-be-bothered-to-disguise leadership bid. The north of England had been left behind for too long. Things had to change. “We can feel the ground crumbling,” she said. And the old guard couldn’t be buried under the rumble soon enough. Corbyn choked. He could feel the build-up of dust in his throat already. None of Nandy’s main rivals for the leadership: Rebecca Long-Bailey, Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner, were in the chamber to hear her. They were on manoeuvres elsewhere in Westminster.
Hoyle was dragged – not in the slightest bit reluctantly – to the Speaker’s chair by Nandy and Tory Nigel Evans. There was a poignancy here. Less than two months ago, it had been Caroline Flint who had done the honours. Now she was just a distant voice, struggling to be heard in the Labour echo chamber. Not waving but drowning. Soon the waters would close over her and the only trace of her existence inside Westminster would be a few ripples on the surface.
Huge roars greeted Boris Johnson as he rose to welcome the new Speaker. Mostly from his own frontbench as they tried to outcompete one another in their displays of loyalty. They have all read the runes. They know that Dominic Cummings is hellbent on massively reducing the numbers of ministers attending cabinet and are desperate not to be the ones in line for a cull.
At the first cabinet meeting, Boris had openly taunted his ministers by getting them to repeat his own lies on camera. A lie shared is a lie not just halved but twisted into truth. “How many hospitals are we going to build?” he bellowed. “40,” they all yelled back, knowing they were lying through their teeth. Well, all but needy Matt Hancock, who squeaked “41”. Or maybe even 42. Toadying is Matt’s Meaning of Life.
The prime minister tried not to look too Smuggy McSmugFace as he delivered his speechlet. But even then he couldn’t prevent the odd, entitled smirk from crossing his face. Appearing like a man who actually intends to deliver on his promises is going to be a lot harder than managing the Conservative party for someone who doesn’t have a generous bone in his body. His whole life has been an act of thoughtless self-indulgence and self-promotion. Caring about others is a totally alien mindset. He talks of the sacred nature of trust, when he has only ever repaid it by letting people down.
Corbyn mumbled something about being sad about the number of Labour MPs who had lost their seats. The apology might have felt more genuine if he had actually first bothered to phone or email them to convey the same message. He also reminded the Speaker he was was there to hold the executive to account. Because right now Labour isn’t up to the job of doing that itself.
The other party leaders said their bit and then everyone shuffled out for the day, as the swearing-in began. By chance Corbyn found himself alone on the frontbench sitting next to Jon Ashworth, the shadow health minister who was recorded rubbishing Corbyn’s leadership. But they managed a polite chat. After all, it isn’t as if either of them are spoiled for choice for people to speak to these days.
John Crace’s new book, Decline and Fail: Read in Case of Political Apocalypse, is published by Guardian Faber. To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.