We are in danger of losing the art of political insults

Picture: Ian Hargreaves

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The art of the political insult is not yet dead, but it is on life support.

Unfortunately, there’s little hope of a recovery while Messrs Cameron and Miliband splutter at each other over the despatch box.

Both favour the vituperative blunderbuss, where discourteous little pellets are blasted in all directions and the damage caused is rarely more than skin-deep.

Neither man wields the stiletto of the finely-crafted taunt, which can be plunged in with greater accuracy and leaves the person thus perforated struggling for his or her political life.

High-class invective remains with the victim forever and enters into Westminster legend. Winston Churchill is acknowledged as its greatest exponent, and though his jousts with Nancy Astor have been recalled with relish down the years, it was his excoriating observation about Clement Atlee which did most damage.

There is simply no way back for any politician described as ‘a modest man with much to be modest about.’

But oddly enough, it is when colleague rounds on colleague that the insult is most effective.

It’s why Ann Widdicombe’s description of Michael Howard – that he had ‘something of the night about him’ - is destined to linger around the former Conservative leader like a bad smell.

Geoffrey Howe – always considered inoffensive – actually precipitated the removal of Margaret Thatcher as Conservative leader. When making his resignation speech, he said her hostility towards the single currency (about which she was proved to be entirely correct) made discussing the issue with other European countries impossible.

‘It was,’ he said, ‘like sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find as the first balls are being bowled that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.’

Nine days later, Thatcher was gone. It’s something Cameron and Osborne might bear in mind should they be tempted to laugh off the lacerating description of them by Conservative back-bencher Nadine Dorries.

‘Arrogant posh boys, who don’t know the price of milk,’ has a distinct air of permanency about it.