I’ll be honest, I was expecting fireworks at PMQs today. It’s the first day back after the Christmas break and MPs have had about as long a break as they’re going to get between now and the General Election. I thought I’d see the party leaders launch themselves at each other like a pair of oversized jack-in-the-boxes. I thought it would be angry, unseemly and probably rather boisterous. I’d even written a piece with Marcus Roberts this morning talking this up as the real beginning of the political year.
And then ninety minutes before PMQs came the tragic news that Paul Goggins MP had passed away. And the mood in Westminster shifted from angry to sombre.
I didn’t know Paul Goggins, but I’d heard plenty of his colleagues in the house praise him in the past both publicly and privately. What’s more remarkable though is that I’d never heard anyone have a bad word to say about him. In the often robust and aggressive atmosphere of Westminster it’s rare to hear only good things about someone. He sounded like an exceptionally good man. I wish I had known him.
So into the chamber trooped MPs from across the political spectrum this afternoon. Many of them knew, liked and respected Goggins. The Speaker gave a moving tribute to the Wythenshawe and Sale East MP, which was followed up by touching tributes from both the Cameron and Miliband. The latter seemed to bring a few tears to even some of the grizzled veterans of the green benches.
With such a sombre start, PMQs was never going to be a bun-fight today. It’s hard to spend five minutes sharing praise for a man respected across the house only to follow that up with a twenty five minute slanging match. So the questions from Ed Miliband were precise and measured. And the answers from Cameron were similarly restrained.
Sure, there were some moments when the temperature of the room increased. Diane Abbott took a swipe at the government over housing benefit, and Tom Blenkinsop pressed the PM on a rather questionable visit to Downing Street (which Political Scrapbook have covered in detail). But on the whole this was a much calmer, more serious and more respectful occasion.
It was suggested by the BBC’s Nick Robinson afterwards that today was, perhaps, the first PMQs of a new, more mature, more statesmanlike style. It was even suggested that the two leaders might have come together over the break and agreed to take the temperature out of proceedings. I very much doubt that.
No, this was something altogether simpler but more visceral. This was a group of people, many shocked and saddened, who decided that today was a day for mourning, not a day for caterwauling. It spoke well of the man Paul Goggins was that he could bring calm to where there is normally such anger. He will be missed.