Matt Chorley: Rule No. 1 - Never lose it with hecklers

The PM needs jokes, says The Independent on Sunday's classroom clown
  • @MattChorley

It was when the English teacher put a cardboard box over my head that it became obvious things had gone too far. As I do today, my 13-year-old self delighted in being the centre of attention. Unable to ignore my distracting (and obviously indefensible) behaviour, she had lost control and reacted.

This is where David Cameron went wrong, when last week he snapped and reacted to the taunts of Ed Balls, labelling the Shadow Chancellor a "muttering idiot". As the PM gave his trademark smirk to his guffawing backbenchers behind him, George Osborne almost exploded in delight. But the most telling reaction came from Balls himself. He gave Cameron a thumbs-up: Thanks, chump: I win.

Balls's trick is to spend the entire 30 minutes of Prime Minister's Questions telling Cameron to "calm down", "drink some water" or repeating over and over again, with hand gestures, that the economy is flat-lining. The reason Osborne was so pleased with the reaction is that he too has to tolerate Balls's games. "It's Ed Miliband I feel sorry for," the Chancellor tells friends. "He has to put up with it all the time."

Call it heckling, goading, sledging – maybe, sometimes, just plain bullying – but having to deal with (and ignore) a barrage of abuse and attempts to distract is an occupational hazard for everyone from referees to comedians, cricketers to TV presenters. The victim must stand and take it or lose by default.

The expert heckler starts young. The classic classroom prank is non-verbal, and every teacher has a horror story involving a pupil who thinks it amusing to break wind in lessons. "It's always a boy. I have never known a girl to do it," says Hazel Bennett, a teacher for more than 35 years and author of The Ultimate Teachers' Handbook. "The way to handle it is to say nothing, do nothing, don't respond. And at the end of the lesson, keep them back and say you're going to ask their parents to change what they are eating."

You see, it's all about the witty riposte. Responding with anger is an admission of defeat. Nick Robinson, the BBC's political editor, lost his rag in October 2010 when anti-war protesters waved a "Bring troops home now" placard behind his live report on the Six O'clock News. After coming off air, he grabbed the sign and smashed it up. He later admitted: "I lost my temper and I regret that."

The relentless, repetitive rudeness of the expert sledger is something to behold. It must be funny, because that makes it even harder for the victim to react badly and risk being seen as someone who cannot take a joke. It is a lesson forgotten by the Scottish comic Dave Whitney when last summer he headbutted a heckler at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and also by the rugby referee in a Somerset league game in 2004 who walked off the pitch after 67 minutes because of "abuse from the touchline".

However, the masters of sporting sledging are to be found on the cricket field. Far from the genteel thwack of leather on willow or perfect Victoria sponge, it is brutal, and dates back decades. The best exponents are heroes in their own right, their names interchangeable but their jokes no less cutting. Australia's Rodney Marsh once remarked to England's Ian Botham: "So how's your wife and my kids?" Botham replied: "The wife's fine. The kids are retarded." But the easy ball came from Aussie paceman Glen McGrath, bowling to Zimbabwe's Eddo Brandes. "Why are you so fat?" McGrath asked. "Because every time I sleep with your wife," Brandes replied, "she gives me a biscuit."

Rude, yes, but brilliantly quick-witted, unlike Cameron. Ed Balls may be a mutterer, but he is no idiot. It was his taunts on the state of the economy that provoked Cameron, and, in the end, a double-dip recession is no laughing matter.