Jeremy Corbyn’s last PMQs as Leader of the Opposition was also in many ways the strangest. It lasted twice as long as usual, but with far fewer MPs, and in an atmosphere of enforced solidarity mingled with deep anxiety.
Boris Johnson paid tribute to Corbyn “for his service to the party and country”.
Corbyn retorted that this sounded like “a sort of obituary”, whereas “I’ll still be around”.
Johnson remarked, with amusement, that this news “will be warmly welcomed by his successor”.
But the Prime Minister had come to the Chamber intent on sounding solemn and consensual, rather than light or partisan.
Part of the interest of this session lay in seeing whether, in the face of boredom and provocation, he could keep to those good intentions, or whether levity would keep breaking in.
His response, when asked to help the self-employed, or provide personal protective equipment for health staff and care home workers, was almost always that the questioner “is absolutely right to raise the issue”, followed by some variant of “we will do it as fast as possible”.
Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, could be seen further up the Treasury Bench, scowling as Ian Blackford, for the Scottish Nationalists, said that telling the self-employed to wait another day “simply isn’t good enough”.
Johnson said Blackford was “making a very important point” and “I totally share his desire” to bring help.
In response to Alistair Carmichael (Lib Dem, Orkney and Shetland), who pointed out that the people who look after the visitors to those islands are “overwhelmingly self-employed”, Johnson went further:
“I can’t in all candour promise the House that we will be able to get through this crisis without any hardship at all.”
Carmichael had said that if the PM led the country successfully through this crisis, he would deserve a holiday, and should spend it on the “paradise islands” of Orkney and Shetland.
Johnson replied: “As for his generous invitation, he should be careful what he wishes for.”
A joke! By this stage we were grateful for one. For although solemn people deplore any hint of levity, most members of the human race cannot bear very much solemnity.
Jeremy Hunt, the former Health Secretary, saluted “the tone of the Prime Minister’s very difficult sombre address to the nation on Monday night”, and asked when weekly tests will be provided for NHS staff, in order to “remove from them the fear they might be infecting their own patients”.
Johnson reverted to his standard line: “as soon as we possibly can”.
Corbyn now came in for his second round of six questions, and said that instead of this double ration of PMQs, the Prime Minister really ought to have “pressed to come here and make a statement”.
Had John Bercow still been Speaker, that is what the PM would surely have been forced to do, especially as the House will not be sitting for the next four weeks.
Corbyn complained about “queues of over 110,000 people trying to get into the DWP system” in order to claim benefits.
Johnson smiled – apparently at some response to the Leader of the Opposition shouted by a backbencher – and rose to reply, but Corbyn told him: “I haven’t finished yet…This is not a time for levity.”
Johnson replied: “He’s absolutely right, this is not a time for levity.”
Corbyn followed up with a line adapted from John Donne: “No one is an island.”
At last, for a moment, we were in touch with a divinely inspired solemnity:
“No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”