David Cameron was in such bumptious form that the traditionalists among us feared he was going to produce a mobile phone and take a selfie of himself with Nick Clegg. But the Prime Minister instead came armed with a joke about how the selfie at Nelson Mandela’s memorial meeting came to be taken: Mandela had spent so much of his life bringing people together that “when a member of the Kinnock family asked me for a photograph I thought it was only polite to say yes”.
This kind of matey statesmanship is very difficult to deal with. If one declines to laugh at the joke, one comes across as pompous, but if one plays along with it one is drawn in to complicity with the matey statesman.
To judge by the Johannesburg selfie, Cameron was getting along like a house on fire with Barack Obama and Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the Danish Prime Minister, who took the selfie while sitting between the two men and who happens also to be the daughter-in-law of Neil Kinnock, a former leader of the Labour party.
So Cameron can get along fine with Lefties when they happen to be a glamorous Danish politician, or the President of the United States. These credentials made it all the easier for him to go on being immensely rude during PMQs to Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, neither of whom could yet be called glamorous.
But the Prime Minister started by being immensely rude to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which has proposed an 11 per cent pay rise for MPs. Cameron announced that this was “simply unacceptable” and “IPSA must think again”, or else “I don’t think anyone will want to rule anything out”.
This is the language of a bully who knows he has public opinion behind him. His message was that in IPSA’s name the word “Independent” is meaningless. It makes one wonder why Cameron and the other party leaders agreed to set that dreary body up. If I were a member of IPSA, I would be tempted to decide that the only way to deal with a bully is to stand up to him.
Cameron proceeded to describe Miliband and Balls as “Red Ed and Redder Ed” – a reference to Balls’s red-in-the-face speech when replying last Thursday to George Osborne, a performance which in most quarters received poor reviews.
The Prime Minister proceeded to get personal with Balls, who spent much of PMQs pointing downwards: “He can dish it out but he can’t take it. I’ll tell him what’s going down. His career is going down.”
Miliband laughed with excessive pleasure at this sally. Since he would be the person who would sack Balls from the shadow chancellorship, this amusement seemed an ominous portent.
Never has Cameron expressed more a more withering scorn for his Labour opponents. From a Tory point of view, the only drawback of this contemptuous manner is that it makes the Prime Minister sound ever so slightly arrogant.