Jacob Rees-Mogg riled David Cameron and provoked him into a risky counter-attack. Until their exchange, the Prime Minister had risen with serene confidence above whatever jibes were thrown at him.
He dismissed Jeremy Corbyn as a man who cannot even fill in his own tax return correctly. Various Labour women MPs received almost condescendingly polite replies to their questions: how careful the Prime Minister is to avoid seeming rude or off-hand to them.
An unremarkable session seemed to be moving peacefully to its close, when Mr Rees-Mogg rose and asked his question. Here it is in full:
Over 200,000 economic migrants came from the European Union in the period for which we’ve got figures and yet the propaganda sheet sent out to the British people claims we’ve maintained control of our borders. Have we withdrawn from the free movement of people or is that sheet simply untrue?
One of the advantages of having good manners is that one can, if one wishes, be very rude. Mr Rees-Mogg’s contemptuous reference to “the propaganda sheet” was followed by a invitation to Mr Cameron to admit to being a liar.
The Prime Minister could have tried to defuse this confrontation by expressing a rueful regret that the Government’s leaflet has not met with universal approval. He instead became very angry and said, in full:
The truth is this. Economic migrants that come to the European Union do not have the right to come to the UK. They are not European nationals. They are nationals of Pakistan or nationals of Morocco or nationals of Turkey. None of those people have the right. So this is very important and frankly this is why it’s important we do send information to households so they can see the truth about what is being proposed. What my Right Honourable Friend has just put forward is classic of the sort of scare story we get. Britain has borders! Britain will keep its borders! We’ve got the best of both worlds.
Mr Rees-Mogg was by now laughing. For seemed pretty clear he had been wilfully misinterpreted. He was referring to the right of Poles, Romanians, Bulgarians and other EU nationals to move to Britain, not to Pakistanis, Moroccans and Turks.
It is conceivable that the Prime Minister, enraged by being insulted, had genuinely misunderstood the question, though Mr Rees-Mogg spoke with his usual lucidity, and to a House which had fallen silent, for it wished to hear what he had to say.
But here, exposed for a moment to public view, was the depth of the contempt and distrust Conservatives feel for each other on the EU issue. Mr Cameron’s really dangerous opponents are not on the Opposition benches, and he knows it.