“Penny’s out.” The result of the Conservative leadership reached the press, ranged across the back of Committee Room 14, a couple of minutes before Sir Graham Brady could announce it to Conservative MPs.
“She’s out,” journalists repeated to each other. “Penny’s dropped.”
Sir Graham put it almost as briefly. The moment he said there was only one valid nomination, a great drumming of desks broke out, for this meant Rishi Sunak, far ahead of Penny Mordaunt in all the published tallies, had won.
Sudden death is part of the British political tradition. Unlike benighted lands with fixed terms, we have the freedom, if our representatives choose to use it, to defenestrate one Prime Minister and appoint another within days.
Conservative MPs have this time used that freedom. They framed the rules for the contest in such a way that they could settle it without reference to the wider membership.
“Well thank God for that,” one senior backbencher remarked afterwards. “Boris did the right thing.”
Johnson had folded the night before, and now Mordaunt too threw in the towel. The drama was over before there was time to get bored.
And how much even those with walk-on parts had enjoyed themselves. Beneath the curved glass roof of Portcullis House, resting on six mighty pillars, politicians and journalists strolled to and fro on Monday morning in the great market of reputations.
Here one could sit with a cup of coffee ordered from The Despatch Box and watch anxious confabulations in which it was impossible to tell who was using who, and even possible that all concerned were deriving some benefit.
“The careerists will now move over to Sunak,” an old hand remarked, and it was indeed impossible to detect any movement towards Mordaunt, for the rush to join the winning side had begun.
The fig trees which grew in Portcullis House have recently been cut down, expensive efforts to help them flourish having failed, leaving behind raised beds of empty soil.
It occurred to us that these should now be planted with potatoes, as a sign of the new Government’s seriousness of purpose.
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. Outside Committee Room 14 hangs a warning of the terrible fate that can overtake a Prime Minister, a portrait of Ramsay MacDonald.
For when MacDonald agreed to head the National Government of 1931, and implement spending cuts of a severity unimaginable today, he was denounced as a traitor by his own Labour colleagues, who have never forgiven him.
Inside Committee Room 14 could be seen, behind Sir Graham, a picture of a Prime Minister whose reputation has lasted better: William Gladstone, magnificent in profile, with the Liberal Cabinet of 1868.
But even Gladstone split his party in the end, over Home Rule for Ireland.
Sunak said in the brief and slightly awkward homily he delivered soon after his victory, “We now need stability and unity.”
Will he be able to attain these? Only if he can induce the backbenchers who today welcomed him by banging their desks to refrain from civil war.