Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Classy Harriet Harman puts David Cameron on back foot

Harman's allusion of an old Etonian lacking 'class' sobered Mr Cameron quickly

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Something odd happened yesterday. The stand-in leader of a comprehensively defeated opposition punctured the euphoria of a Prime Minister who recently led his party to an overall majority for the first time in 23 years.

Magnanimity in victory doesn’t seem to be Cameron’s style. So when Harriet Harman asked him why 16- and 17-year-olds couldn’t vote on EU membership he went, perhaps involuntarily, into Flashman mode, exulting in Labour’s support  for the referendum bill.

“After five years of opposing a referendum,” he said, “to watch them all trooping through was like seeing the biggest mass conversion since that Chinese general baptised his troops with a hosepipe.” This was not a bad gag, though worse than the roar of sycophantic laughter from the benches behind him implied.

“May I just say that the right honourable gentleman won the election and he is the Prime Minister, so he does not need to do ranting and sneering and gloating,” Harman replied. “He can just answer the question. Frankly, he should show a bit more class.”

Harman may have delivered this rebuke in the chilly tones of a severe Victorian governess but it sounded spontaneous – rather more than Cameron’s joke, in fact. At this point the PM all but literally fell about. But if his mirth was genuine – somewhat doubtful – it was difficult to see quite what was so funny. Surely not the idea of an old Etonian lacking “class”?

Cameron did – metaphorically speaking – sober up at this point. But as Harman accurately told him, he couldn’t “help himself”, and he was soon quoting from her recent Independent interview – for example that some of her party colleagues felt “relieved” that Labour was not in power.

Unmoved, Harman returned to the “gloating” charge, which Cameron kept in turn referring to, as in “I hope it’s not gloating to say...” etc etc. But he didn’t mention the “class” point. Hard to believe Harman had not touched a nerve. Or to understand why – if this PMQs is anything to go by – she isn’t standing as leader.

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