A funny thing happened on my way to the dispatch box

Nick Clegg has been making free with his witticisms. He's not the first politician to fancy himself as a comedian, says Andy McSmith

Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, managed to both amuse and amaze his audience this week when, speaking at a lunch for the parliamentary press gallery, he told two jokes. They were both quite funny.

Typically, the jokes that modern politicians tell have none of the wit that used to enliven the House of Commons. Great orators like Lloyd George, Churchill and Michael Foot not only knew how to tell them, they wrote them too, rather than relying on the services of paid joke writers.

Margaret Thatcher was one of the first to require professionals to write jokes for her, because her bossy, orderly mind revolted against the verbal anarchy of humour – but the people she hired were good, and once she had the point of a joke explained to her, the result could be all the funnier coming from someone so remorselessly serious.

In modern times, politicians who write their own jokes are exceedingly rare. Either they have them written by an adviser, or they pick them up second-hand, frequently selecting ones that were not funny the first time.

One of the problems is that the modern 24-hour news cycle means politicians are compelled to be so very careful with what they say, because there is always someone out there ready to be offended.

And with rare exceptions, they are not naturally funny people. If they were, they would probably not be in politics, because the rewards for being a successful comedian are so much greater. People take comedians seriously, while they laugh at politicians, but seldom laugh with them.

Selected political one-liners

"Whatever people say about Chris Huhne, I don't know any politician better at getting his points across."

Nick Clegg

"Look at Ryan Giggs, look at Ed Miliband. One is a fading left-winger who's upset his brother and is having a difficult time with the press – and the other is a footballer."

Nick Clegg

"I was getting worried I hadn't seen Boris. But then I learnt he had popped off to the museum's Sexual Nature exhibition. Now, that's no surprise, is it?"

David Cameron, at the Tory ball at the Natural History Museum, 2011, looking around to see if the Mayor of London was in attendance

"Calm down, dear."

David Cameron to Angela Eagle

Many of us in the Labour Party are conservationists – and we all love the red squirrel, but there is one ginger rodent which we never want to see again – Danny Alexander."

Harriet Harman on the Chief Secretary to the Treasury as "the frontman for the Tory cuts"

"I stole David's football, so he nationalised my train set."

Ed Miliband in his first speech as Labour leader

"I'm not saying Susan Boyle caused swine flu. I'm just saying that nobody had swine flu; she sang on TV, people got swine flu."

Junior minister Sion Simon on Twitter

"At least I won't have to worry about her running off with the bloke next door."

Tony Blair opening his farewell speech to the Labour Party conference in 2006 with a joke about on his wife's dislike of Gordon Brown

"It's not Brown's, it's Balls."

Michael Heseltine unmasks the author of a Gordon Brown speech ridiculed for its high-flown references to "post-neoclassical endogenous growth theory", 1994

"Politics is a serious business and one should not lower the tone unduly. So I will say only this of the Liberal Democrat symbol and of the party it symbolises. This is an ex-parrot."

Margaret Thatcher ridiculing the Liberal Democrats' new party emblem in 1990

"The Great She-elephant, She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, the Catherine the Great of Finchley."

Denis Healey on Margaret Thatcher, 1984

"The longest suicide note in history."

The Labour MP Gerald Kaufman's verdict on Labour's general election manifesto, 1983

"He immatures with age."

Harold Wilson on Tony Benn, who became increasingly radical from about the age of 45

"He's passed from rising hopes to elder statesman without any intervening period whatsoever."

Michael Foot on David Steel, 1979. Steel became an "elder statesman" when the Lib-Lab pact was formed just after he had been elected leader of the Liberal Party at the age of 38

"Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life."

The Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe after Harold Macmillan sacked seven cabinet ministers in one day in July 1962

"It is, I think, good evidence of life after death."

Donald Soper, the Methodist minister and peer, on the House of Lords in 1978

"Like being savaged by a dead sheep."

Denis Healey describing how it felt to be attacked by his Tory shadow, Sir Geoffrey Howe in 1978

"It is not necessary that every time he rises he should give his famous imitation of a semi house-trained polecat."

Michael Foot on Norman Tebbit, 1978

"In politics, you should never completely rule out falling back on the truth."

Advice passed on from Michael Foot, then Leader of the House, to his deputy, John Smith, 1977

"Keep taking the pills."

Margaret Thatcher: her speechwriter meant her to say "Keep taking the tablets" as a response to James Callaghan comparing his labours to those of Moses leading the Israelites to the Promised Land

"Harold Wilson is going round and round the country stirring up apathy."

William Whitelaw 1974

"Leaking is what you do. Briefing is what I do."

James Callaghan, former home secretary, to the Franks Committee on official secrecy, 1971

"I suppose, Mr Wilson, when you come to think of it, is the 14th Mr Wilson."

Alec Douglas-Home's riposte to Harold Wilson, who taunted him for being the 14th Earl of Home, 1963

"He occasionally stumbled over the truth, but hastily picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened."

Attributed to Winston Churchill summing up his predecessor, Stanley Baldwin

A body of 500 men chosen at random from amongst the unemployed

David Lloyd George summing up the House of Lords, 1909

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