After the beheading of a second US journalist by Isis, and the threat to murder a British hostage, the first PMQs of the new term was an appropriately sombre occasion. David Cameron and Ed Miliband both delivered powerful condemnations of the terrorist group, the former declaring "A country like ours will not be cowed by these barbaric killers" and the latter speaking of a "universal sense of revulsion".
After asking Cameron what the UK was doing to mobilise nations in the region against Isis and how it would use its chairing of the UN Security Council (avoiding the issue of whether the UK will take part in US-led airstrikes), Miliband moved on to the thorny issue of the coalition's domestic response. After the confusion that followed Cameron's statement on anti-terror powers on Monday, with the Lib Dems casting doubt over the plans announced by the PM, Miliband challenged him to confirm whether the reintroduction of relocation powers for terrorist suspects (forcing them to move home) would go ahead. In response, Cameron said that "it will go ahead", despite the Lib Dems briefing on Monday that "We have not definitively signed up to introducing relocation powers. We have agreed to look in detail at the options". While repeating his promise of cross-party talks on the issue, the PM's words appeared to be another attempt to bounce the Lib Dems into support.
Miliband then asked Cameron whether his proposal to block British jihadists from returning home would be legally permissible (Clegg commented yesterday that "At the moment it is not obvious what one can do in a way which is consistent with our legal obligations". He replied: "I do believe it is legally permissible, but it’s going to require some work". In other words, the situation is no clearer than it was earlier this week. But Miliband's intervention effectively drove a wedge between the coalition parties on civil liberties. On an issue as significant as national security, the impression of a divided government is damaging for Cameron.
The two other notable points from the session were the passion with which Cameron made the case against Scottish independence, and the increasingly perilous position of the Speaker, John Bercow. On Scotland, after a YouGov poll showed the Yes campaign just six points behind, the PM denounced the SNP's scaremongering over the NHS ("The only person who can privatise the NHS in Scotland is Alex Salmond") and its "chilling" threat to default on its share of the national debt.
In response to Tory MP Edward Leigh, who warned that a Yes vote would be "a national humiliation of catastrophic proportions" and who urged the party leaders to drop everything and stand "shoulder to shoulder" in defence of the Union, Cameron said: "The leaders of the parties in this House have all put aside their differences and said ‘in spite of the political differences we have, we all agree about one thing – not just that Scotland is better off inside the UK, the UK is better off with Scotland." Despite his party's enfeebled status in Scotland, today's exchanges were a reminder that Cameron is one of the most powerful defenders of the Union.
After PMQs had concluded, Bercow faced a barrage of points of order from Tory MPs over the disputed appointment of Carol Mills as Clerk of the House. Such was the ferocity with which they attacked the Speaker (who many have long loathed since his election under Labour) that Edward Leigh was forced to urge the House to respect his authority. While most believe Bercow will ride the row out, his position has never looked so weak; irrevocable damage has now been done to his standing in the Commons.
Update: The Lib Dems have just issued a response to Cameron's comments on anti-terror powers. On blocking British suspects from returning home, a spokesman said:
"This issue remains under discussion in government and we have always said that we would be prepared to sign up to something that was both legal and practical."
"This is a very legally complicated issue and needs to be examined very closely."
And on relocation powers, he said:
“The issue of introducing relocation powers remains under discussion in government. We have agreed to look in detail at the options available to us.
“The Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, David Anderson, whose views we respect, recently recommended that the Government look at locational constraints that can be put on TPIMs suspects to make it easier to disrupt their networks and to reduce the risk of absconding.
“As a result, the Liberal Democrats are willing to look in more detail at options, including at whether the use of exclusion zones under the existing legislation could be expanded to meet the concerns that Anderson raises.”
As I expected, both suggest a far more ambiguous situation than Cameron's words implied.