The Top 10: Debate Put-Downs

From Alcibiades to Obama, some of the best replies through the ages

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Independent Voices

This suggestion was originally made a year ago by Stephen Bush, and more recently by Andrew Meldrum. With the election, its time has come. 

1. “When I was your age, Alcibiades, I talked just the way you are now talking.” “If only I had known you, Pericles, when you were at your best.” Fifth century BC. Alasdair Brooks admitted that it may have been invented by Xenophon, in his Memorabilia, but it is still good. 

2. “You have no right whatever to speak on behalf of the government. Foreign affairs are in the capable hands of Ernest Bevin... I can assure you there is widespread resentment in the party at your activities and a period of silence on your part would be welcome.” Clement Attlee, letter to Harold Laski, chairman of the Labour Party (above), 1946. Stephen Bush’s original suggestion. 

3. “The right hon. and learned gentleman finally got round to them, a trifle nervously I thought, after ploughing through a tedious and tendentious farrago of moth-eaten cuttings presented to him by the Conservative research department. That part of his speech was rather like being savaged by a dead sheep.” Denis Healey, Chancellor, to Geoffrey Howe, his shadow, House of Commons debate, 1978. Nominated by Paul T Horgan and Graham Sutton. 

4. “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Ronald Reagan, 73, when the moderator said that he was the oldest person to hold the office of President, in the 1984 debate against Walter Mondale, 56. From Alasdair Brooks and Jon W. 

5. “I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency...” “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Lloyd Bentsen to Dan Quayle, vice-presidential debate, 1988. Thanks to Nicholas Mapstone and Alasdair Brooks. Still electric. 

6. “Perhaps, Madam Speaker, he would like to tell me whether he has received the support of the 50 MPs who defied his front bench over Maastricht...” “Madam Speaker, there’s one very big difference. There’s one very big difference. Oh no, there’s one very big difference. I lead my party. He follows his.” Tony Blair had asked John Major about Conservative divisions over Europe, Prime Minister’s Questions, 1995. My first day in the parliamentary press gallery. Nominated by Jamie Pullman. 

7. “It’s only our first exchange and already the Prime Minister is asking me the questions. This approach is stuck in the past, and I want to talk about the future. He was the future once.” David Cameron’s first Prime Minister’s Questions against Tony Blair, 2005. Suggested by Andrew Meldrum.  

8. “The thing about poor old Costello, he’s all tip and no iceberg.” Paul Keating, former Australian Prime Minister, of Peter Costello, the Liberal Treasurer, 2007. 

9. “The House has noticed the Prime Minister's remarkable transformation in the past few weeks from Stalin to Mr Bean, creating chaos out of order, rather than order out of chaos.” Vince Cable, acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, of Gordon Brown, at Prime Minister’s Questions, 2007. Thanks to John Peters. 

10. “Mr President, have you looked at your pension?” “You know I don’t look at my pension. It’s not as big as yours. It doesn’t take as long. I don’t check it that often.” Mitt Romney tried to make the point that some of Barack Obama’s pension was also invested abroad, presidential debate, 2012. Thanks to Dale.

No Ordinary Cat‏ nominated Enoch Powell, who urged people to vote Labour in 1974 and was heckled as a “Judas!” He responded: “Judas was paid; I’m making a sacrifice!” This was an excellent nomination, but falls into a separate category, of clever replies to heckles, many of which were included in the Top 10 Heckles. 

Next week: Chapter Titles, such as “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”, chapter 7 of The Wind in the Willows, which is where Pink Floyd got the idea from

Coming soon: Headlines, such as, “Old McDonnell Has a Plan. He Eyes IOUs” (Economist)

The book, Listellany: A Miscellany of Very British Top Tens, From Politics to Pop, is just £9.99. Your suggestions, and ideas for future Top 10s, in the comments please, or to me on Twitter, or by email to