We now know what David Cameron’s mother would say to Jeremy Corbyn: “Put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the National Anthem!”
This was one of the most enjoyably outrageous sallies the Prime Minister has ever made. He has often referred to younger members of his family, but bringing in his mother takes things to a new level of seriousness.
A mother is like one of P.G.Wodehouse’s aunts. She has no hesitation in reproving younger generations when their behaviour falls below acceptable standards, and she can be terrifying.
We now recall that Cameron has mentioned his mother before, but simply to say that she served for many years as a magistrate. No doubt the bench in her court was not mocked.
She has put her finger on Corbyn’s fatal weakness. He is not respectable. This matters a thousand times more to middle England than bohemian north London intellectuals will ever be prepared to admit.
Michael Foot fell below middle English standards when he appeared to wear a donkey jacket at the Cenotaph. The appearance may have been deceptive – one seems to remember he was actually clad in a perfectly decent, if rather short, coat – but it showed a lack of respect.
People like Foot and Corbyn think they are above that kind of thing. They really do not believe it matters. That is why Corbyn imagined, with arrogant naivety, that he could get away with not singing the National Anthem.
One assumes Cameron had prepared his mother’s devastating retort because he thought Corbyn might refer to her criticism of public spending cuts in Berkshire. Corbyn actually refrained, with chivalrous delicacy, from doing so: he went straight for Jeremy Hunt, whom he accused of spreading misleading statistics about weekend mortality.
But one of Corbyn’s backbenchers shouted “what would your mother say?” so Cameron was able to use his mother’s retort anyway. The house laughed for about half a minute after he had done so, for this matriarchal onslaught was so completely over the top, yet also so entirely justified.
Corbyn tried to retort by saying very angrily that his own late mother believed in an NHS free at the point of use, but somehow the blow failed to land.
The Prime Minister was a bit on edge this week: more ready to be acerbic. He cannot yet have recovered from his almost sleepless sojourn in Brussels at the end of last week, and he must have been wondering whether any of his backbenchers would go for him about Europe.
Owen Paterson (Con, North Shropshire) was eager to do so. With what urgency he jumped up and down, striving to catch the Speaker’s eye, and how pale with anger he turned as he was forced to wait while various other Conservatives raised parochial concerns.
At last Paterson was called. He wanted to know whether the referendum is going to be fair: whether there will be equality of opportunity for both sides, in accordance with some code of conduct we have signed about the conduct of referendums.
Cameron was defiant. He insisted “the Government has a position on this issue”, so “it does not mean the Government is neutral, it does not mean the civil service is neutral”.
But some of us were still wondering, somewhat uneasily, whether our shoes had been polished recently enough to meet with Cameron’s mother’s approval.