Bear-baiting was outlawed by Parliament in 1835, but MPs are always prepared to make an exception for their leaders, and none more so than for David Cameron.
Dapper Dave may well be the recipient of years of expensive grooming at Eton College — not to mention the added advantages of the Bullingdon Club — but none of that can prepare one for the onslaught of the oiks.
The Great Unwashed, as some might refer to the Parliamentary Labour Party, was out in force at Prime Ministers Questions, for what turned out to be a Son, if not very Lumiere, performance.
To be fair, they had come to feast on the remains of Liam Fox but in his absence were more than happy to bite bits out of his leader.
Having just agreed to take an extra five days off next month — in return for having to break into their summer hols to discuss the vexed question of riots and burning inner-cities in their constituencies — the whole house was clearly over-excited.
There are, as we know, many Tories for whom Dave’s patrician leadership is as popular as the Dale Farm travellers, but manners dictate that the right to get at him at PMQs lies with Labour, who have learned how easy it can be to wind him up when he is on the back foot, or indeed any foot.
Ed Miliband got proceedings off with a belated attempt to breath life into the ex-Defence Secretary’s corpse, having ducked the opportunity last week. Dave said that the bus had already left the depot but by then the Labour benches were in full throat.
The Prime Minister has the unfortunate habit of reddening from the neck upwards when faced with uncomfortable facts and this vertical tanning was obvious to all at PMQs. Labour MPs call it the Crimson Tide. This is the cry that went up from the terraces as they realised they had their man on the run.
Sitting stony-faced throughout, the front-benchers are all aware that video tapes of reactions are available for Dave to study later. George Osborne, no mean slouch himself on the bullying front, could only grimace as the pitch and volume of the PM’s answers increased in mathematical proportion to the baying from the other side. Other ministers tried best to make it clear that this was nothing to do with them.
New Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond studiously made notes, no doubt reflecting on the fact that six people have held his new post in the last seven years. Further down the front, the majestic figure of Eric Pickles, occupying the space of at least two lesser mortals, was still basking in his victory of the dustbins. Health Secretary Andrew Lansley ominously couldn’t find a seat, whilst the Deputy Prime Minister was giving a whole new meaning to absent friends.
To be fair to Dave, volume and face-colour apart, he did do enough to remind Ed that he had chosen the wrong subject to kick off his attack, but by now, argument was out of the window.
No sooner had Ed sat down to prepare for his second strike than the enemy-within wing of his own party was up asking the question that dare not speak its name — what about the Europe referendum? This was a timely reminder to Dave that a week is a long time in politics, even if it hasn’t happened yet. Next Thursday, we are due a debate in Europe, already backed by 40 Tory MPs ,which includes a demand for a referendum now . But that is next week’s row ,and back in the Commons, Ed was back on his feet.
Last week as the Fox debacle picked up speed, the Labour leader decided to lead off on the economy. This week, as inflation hit a 20 year peak, he chose to go with Fox, but when he did finally get around to the economy, Dave could only flounder loudly. “We have the highest inflation in Europe apart from Estonia,” said Ed, and the Labour side threw its full verbal weight behind the Estonians.
Obviously concerned that Estonians could hear PMQs just by opening their windows, Speaker Bercow accused the opposition of “organised barracking”, leaving observers wondering what barracking sounded like when disorganised.
By now, Dave had his sound button on full volume and the crimson tide was threatening to spill over on to George.
“Calm down dear,” was the delighted cry from the Labour benches. The Eds grinned in rare unison, Angela Eagle, recipient of that very insult from Dave just a few weeks ago, could only smile in satisfaction. Where was Liam Fox when you needed him, Dave must have thought.
Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions.