Left-wing people are funny and Conservatives are not. That’s the myth the Left like to perpetuate – particularly left-wing “comedians”, usually with all the wit and subtlety of John McDonnell at a Palestine Solidarity rally.
We have in Boris Johnson a Conservative Prime Minister famous for his wit and wordplay – a man who famously declared during the 2005 election campaign that “Voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3.”
But, he’s not the first, and certainly won’t be the last, Tory to light up Parliament with his quips. Churchill was the master, naturally, but, as the current Prime Minister will no doubt set out to prove, he is far from alone in bringing humour into the political sphere.
Here’s my pick of the best Conservative wits:
A rake. A bounder. A cad. The serial philanderer, whose wife Jane once nearly killed him with an axe, was regularly was regularly in trouble for things said on and off the record. The only MP to be accused of being drunk at the despatch box – “I do believe the Honourable gentleman is incapable,” noted Clare Short – Clark enjoyed flying close to the sun, and often got burned.
When explaining he was a vegetarian, he’d delight in adding “like the Fuhrer”. He referred to Ken Clarke as a “pudgy puffball”, and upset a dinner-suited Geoffrey Howe by pretending he was the waiter. Perhaps his most scabrous put-down was reserved for Michael Heseltine. “The trouble with Michael is that he had to buy his own furniture,” Clark drawled.
The Honourable Member for Bromley and Chiselhurst waged a one-man campaign of obstruction against New Labour. The master of the filibuster, Labour MPs christened him “bloody Eric Forth” for his dogged determination to delay and destroy as many pointless pieces of legislation as possible.
PMQs he re-christened ‘Prime Minister’s Porkies’, and on one occasion he reduced the House to hysterics when Sir Menzies Campbell rose to ask Blair a question about pensions and Forth roared, “Declare your interest”. “There are millions of people in this country who are white, Anglo-Saxon and bigoted,” he once said, “They need to be represented.”
He could be just as caustic with his constituents. When somebody wrote to him complaining about the lack of affordable housing in the area, he wrote back suggesting they move to “a grottier part of town.” And he was a staunch defender of The Sun’s Page 3. His view on topless women? “Uplifting.”
An early champion of HRT, “St Teresa of the Menopause”, as she nicknamed herself, insisted to anyone who’d listen that she was “very sexually active” way into her 8th decade.
During her time in Parliament, she regularly drew fire from the press for her flamboyant right-wing views; indeed, she made the front pages in 1988 when she celebrated Wimbledon ticket touts as “enterprising brokers and risk-takers”. A member of the “whipless nine” – who John Major famously referred to as “the bastards” – she was briefly delighted when the beleaguered PM stood up to the EU following its refusal to accept British beef. “I don’t know whether the Prime Minister is on ecstasy or had oysters for lunch, but he was terrific,” she gushed.
After her first husband died, she placed an advert in Private Eye to seek a new partner. It read: “Old trout seeks old goats. No golfers. Must have own balls.” Happily, Gorman has had herself immortalised – as the bare-chested bust on the prow of a replica of an 18th Century galleon. “With slightly enhanced bosoms,” she specified in her last request.
Rees-Mogg swiftly established himself as one of the most elegant wits ever to grace the green benches. An apparently divisive figure, he has proved excellent at dividing those who have a sense of humour from those who do not. There always seems to be a twinkle in Rees-Mogg’s eye. He told Andrew Neil he was a “man of the people, vox populi, vox dei.”
A devout Roman Catholic, references to his religion often feature in Rees-Mogg’s contributions. “Dare I say that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repented than over the 99 who are not in need of repentance,” said the Member for North East Somerset, feigning surprise at the Speaker’s decision to follow precedent.
Rees-Mogg’s recent appointment to Leader of the House seems a perfect fit. He took to the despatch box with inimitable flourish; when Liberal MP Tom Brake stood up to say that “the Liberal Democracts couldn’t want for a better recruiting sergeant for us than him”, Rees-Mogg drolly retorted “Mr Speaker, I may be a better recruiting sergeant for the Lib Dems than the honourable gentleman is” to much laughter. The new Commons Leader will provide appointment-to-view tv for all political nerds.
Finally, no list like this would be complete without a bonus entry – not a Conservative MP, but a famous, if not the most famous, American Conservative.
The Gipper’s droll sense of humour became a key feature of his Presidency. Though his “stories” – of the young Soviet who bought an automobile which took ten years to deliver; or the collectivised farm which didn’t grow anything – he would communicate to America and the World the contrasts between the Evil Empire and liberty.
His seemingly off-the-cuff quips – he kept a draw full of index cards filled with jokes in his Oval Office desk, which he’d pepper through his speeches – were as good at diffusing tension as endearing him to his voters. When Walter Mondale tried to attack Reagan over his age, Reagan’s response – “I will not make age an issue of this campaign; I’m not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience” – rescued a poor performance the 1984 Presidential debates and cemented his re-election to the White House.
One gag that nearly backfired came just before a Saturday morning radio broadcast. “My fellow Americans,” said the President, tapping the mic. “I’m pleased to announce that I’ve signed legislation outlawing the Soviet Union. We begin bombing in five minutes.”