Emotions high in parliament as MPs remember terror attack dead

The scene looked familiar, but the tone at Westminster was absent of usual bombast

As MPs crowded into the Commons chamber on Thursday morning, jostling one another on the green benches, the hubbub grew ever louder, drowning the words of a minister at the dispatch box. But when the prime minister arrived to make a statement about Wednesday’s terrorist attack, a great hush fell in an instant, and she rose in silence.

Earlier, the whole of Westminster and Whitehall observed a minute's silence for the victims, including PC Keith Palmer, who was stabbed to death just inside the gates of parliament when he tried to stop the attacker. Palace Yard, where MPs, staff and visitors arrive every day, was sealed off with police tape – a crime scene in the heart of Britain's democracy.

"Yesterday, an act of terrorism tried to silence our democracy, but today we meet as normal, as generations have done before us and as future generations will continue to do, to deliver a simple message: we are not afraid, and our resolve will never waver in the face of terrorism," Theresa May began.

Parliament was indeed meeting as normal, and the scene in the Commons chamber looked familiar, like prime minister's questions a day earlier, just two hours before the attack. The two opposing sets of benches were packed and May was at the dispatch box, facing Jeremy Corbyn opposite. But the tone was very different – sombre, respectful and absent of the usual malice and bombast.


May gave an account of the attack as it had unfolded, starting with the mowing down of pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, killing two. Then she listed the nationalities of the non-British who were injured: “three French children, two Romanians, four South Koreans, one German, one Pole, one Irish, one Chinese, one Italian, one American and two Greeks”.

She revealed that the perpetrator had been known to MI5 some years ago but they regarded him as a peripheral figure in the world of violent extremism. He was not “part of the current intelligence picture” and the security service had no prior intelligence of his plan to attack Westminster.

The greatest response to terror was, she said, in the actions of millions of people going on with their normal lives, sending the message: “You will not defeat us”.

When she sat down, May was hunched and still as she heard Corbyn and other party leaders praise her response to the attack. Many MPs spoke about the importance of unity among all Britain’s communities and the need to avoid associating the killings with British Muslims.

Many mentioned the heroism of Conservative minister Tobias Ellwood, who tried to save Palmer's life moments after he was stabbed. It was not the first experience of terrorism for the MP, whose brother Jonathan was killed in the Bali bombing in 2002.

Among the numerous tributes to Palmer, the most emotional came from Tory MP James Cleverley, a Territorial Army officer who first met the policeman 25 years ago, when he was Gunner Keith Palmer of 100 Regiment Royal Artillery.

“He was a strong, professional public servant, and it was a delight to meet him here again only a few months after being elected,” Cleverly said, his voice trembling.

The prime minister said Palmer had devoted his life to his country, first as a soldier and then for 15 years as a policeman in the parliamentary and diplomatic protection command.

“He was a husband and a father, killed doing a job he loved. He was every inch a hero, and his actions will never be forgotten,” she said.