The House of Commons is rarely a quiet place. MPs like to cheer and jeer when their colleagues say the most remotely controversial or incendiary things, to the point that when the House is near capacity, it is often impossible to hear what the Member on their feet is trying to say.
That often leads to Speaker John Bercow having to intervene in his unique fashion, which can sometimes make the situation even worse and get MPs yet more riled up.
The time of the week when this is most apparent is just after midday on Wednesdays, when Prime Minister’s Questions takes place. Theresa May might be on her way out, but that has not made MPs any less excitable on the green benches.
At this week’s PMQs session, a particularly controversial comment drew a period of sustained jeering lasting several seconds, followed by a strong intervention from the Speaker.
Ian Blackford MP is not known for mincing his words, especially when it comes to firing shots at senior Conservatives in the House of Commons. He is the Westminster leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and when he gets to his feet, MPs across the chamber know to brace for an onslaught of fury.
Mhairi Black MP, one of his SNP colleagues, once complained that other MPs get up and leave the chamber when Blackford stands up to speak.
This time, though, no one left when Blackford stood up, meaning that all the other MPs were still there to make their anger known when he made his highly inflammatory point.
Apparently referring to an article written in conservative magazine The Spectator by Boris Johnson over fourteen years ago in which he heavily criticised future Prime Minister and Scot Gordon Brown, Blackford claimed that the frontrunner to be the next Tory leader and Prime Minister was unfit to govern the country, even going so far as to call him ‘racist’.
“I ask, does the Prime Minister realise,” said Blackford, “not only is the Member [Boris Johnson] racist, he is stoking division in communities and has a record of dishonesty.”
Predictably, the Conservative benches did not take kindly to this. As soon as he uttered the word ‘racist’, Blackford’s words were drowned out by very loud objections from the opposite side of the chamber.
He continued nevertheless: “Does the Prime Minister honestly believe…”
At that point, Blackford was interrupted by Speaker Bercow, who called for order in the House, and advised Blackford to be careful what he said.
“If the Right Honourable gentleman [Ian Blackford] is referring to a current Member of this House… he should be extremely careful in the language he uses. He should have notified the Member [Boris Johnson] in advance,” he said.
“I would urge him [Ian Blackford] to weigh his words,” he continued. “And indeed, I think it would be much better if, for now, he would withdraw any allegation of racism against any particular Member. I don’t think that this is the forum and I don’t think it’s the right way to behave.”
In response, Blackford confirmed that he had in fact informed Johnson of the fact that he would be speaking about him in the Commons during that session, as is common courtesy among MPs. He refused, however, to withdraw his comment.
Nearly half of the 313 Conservative members of Parliament went on to vote for Boris Johnson to be the leader of their party later the same day, placing him miles ahead of all his fellow competitors. Clearly, then, they did not take Blackford’s judgement to heart.