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UK Politics

Andy McSmith's Diary: MPs should know better than to crack jokes about a colleague’s weight

Our man in Westminster

Will there come a point when Eric Pickles gets bored of hearing the boys at the top end of the Cabinet joke about his weight? The Communities Secretary reacted in his customarily good-natured way as George Osborne praised him for turning his department into a “model of lean government”. And how they laughed at this witticism on the government benches, none more loudly than David Cameron.

The Chancellor has visited this line of humour before. In his speech to the 2011 Conservative Party conference, he said: “Economic adviser to Gordon Brown – I’m not sure I’d put that on my CV if I was Ed Balls. It’s like personal trainer to Eric Pickles.”

But then, he was following the example of the Prime Minister, who raised a snigger at the previous year’s party conference by describing Mr Pickles as “the big man on the side of the people”, just after Nick Clegg had described him at the Liberal Democrat conference as the “only cabinet minister you can spot on Google Earth”.

The best political humour is aimed at an opponent’s actions or public image. Mr Cameron, for example, deflated Ed Miliband, who had been taunting him about Conservative splits over Europe, by retorting: “It’s not that bad, it’s not like we’re brothers or anything.” Cruel, but funny.

But joking about someone’s weight is the idle humour of the school bully, even if the person targeted appears not to mind. Likewise, jokes about  someone’s name, like this gross example from Mr Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions – “It’s not just people at Wimbledon who are saying ‘new balls please’.”

Only one politician has made a good joke about Ed Balls’s surname, and that was right at the start of his political career. In 1994, after Gordon Brown had delivered a speech which referred to “neo-classical endogenous growth theory and the symbiotic relationship between growth and investment”, word went around that the author of these words was his newly recruited young researcher, Ed Balls.

“There you have it!” Michael Heseltine declared at the Conservative Party conference a month later. “The final proof. Labour’s brand new, shining, modernists’ economic dream. But it’s not Brown’s – it’s Balls.”

That was funny. All subsequent jokes about Ed Balls’s name are unfunny. Likewise jokes about Eric Pickles’ waistline.

Oh, for the life of an MP in the Gatsby era

The waves of envy that passed around the Commons chamber were almost palpable, as MPs were reminded of how much easier the lives of their forerunners were, in the days before they were expected to turn out to vote during the week and show up in their constituencies at weekends.

During a Commons debate on the lobbying industry, the Labour MP John Cryer strayed slightly off the point to describe the working life of Colonel Sir Walter de Frece, a theatre impresario best known in his lifetime as the husband of the music hall megastar Vesta Tilley, but who also doubled up as MP for Blackpool between 1924 and 1930.

“Despite the fact that he was the MP for Blackpool, he never went near the place,” said Mr Cryer. “In fact, he could not find it on a map. He struggled to find Britain on a map, because he lived in Monte Carlo. He came to Britain twice a year for the Budget debate and for Ascot.

“While he was here, he would get a pile of House of Commons notepaper and sign the bottom, and then his secretary would fill in the rest. It sounds extraordinary, but because he managed to reply to a few letters, he was regarded as a particularly brilliant constituency MP. Nowadays, not even in the safest seat could an MP from any party get away with such behaviour.”

There was a note of wistful regret in that final observation. How hard the life of an MP is these days.

Spin king Campbell all nostalgic in Oz

It is 10 years to the day since Alastair Campbell turned up on Channel 4 News to be interviewed live about allegations swirling around the suicide of the scientist Dr David Kelly. Tony Blair was not too happy about him doing it and the Tories gleefully put it around that he had gone off the rails.

Today found the old spin-master in Australia, just as Julia Gillard was axed as Prime Minister in favour of her party’s ex-leader, Kevin Rudd. “Watching the Rudd/Gillard fallout makes me positively nostalgic for the kind, warm, loving TB GB days. What a mess,” he tweeted.

The man wasn’t for turning away

David Lewis, a Neath Port Talbot councillor, is immensely upset about being axed from his position as the lead councillor for education.

He has written to fellow councillors claiming that he was “scapegoated” for the way he sat while they were selecting a new Director of Education, which was not his fault: it was because another councillor was smoking  e-cigarettes.

“He blew clouds of smoke throughout the meeting. I disliked the smell intensely. Not wishing to create a fuss, the simplest thing for me to do was to push my chair back and then lean back further and so avoid the smoke,” he wrote.

Odd, because e-cigarettes are supposed to have no smell.

Is it a lord? Is it a plane? No, it’s a car

What is notable about most members of the House of Lords is how slowly they move from place to place – when circumstances compel them to move at all. This cannot be said of Paul Drayson, ennobled by Tony Blair in 2004. The other day, Lord Drayson set a land speed record for a lightweight electric car by hitting a top speed in excess of 204mph at a racetrack at RAF Elvington, in Yorkshire. The previous record was 175 mph.

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