Leader of the House, wind-up merchant extraordinaire and, following Lord Frost’s resignation, the last national insurance rebel left standing in Cabinet, Jacob Rees-Mogg was waging war on several fronts at Business Questions on Thursday.
But, as ever, the Commons leader conducted hostilities furtively, under a Sir Humphry-ish veneer of mandarin politeness.
Mr Rees-Mogg’s opposite number, Thangam Debbonaire, laid a predictable trap with a knowing glint, congratulating him on joining Labour in opposing National Insurance rises.
“I wonder, is he about to cross the floor?” she grinned. But the Commons Leader retaliated in kind, congratulating Ms Debbonaire on her own late conversion to the Conservative Policy Unit-approved term “taxpayers’ money” and the potential VAT-reducing opportunities of Brexit.
Another favourite trick was the unsolicited history lesson, often with only glancing relevance to the question. A request for a debate on the future of the A5 motorway triggered a paean to Roman roads.
On Scotland’s Christmas restrictions, said Mr Rees-Mogg, the SNP resembled Emperor Hirohito at the end of the Second World War in conceding utter defeat.
But perhaps the most flagrant example came when Ms Debbonaire’s query about the latest crime statistics provoked a eulogy to Sir Robert Peel, the “Conservative father of modern policing”.
Readers of a nostalgic bent may remember Clippy, the anthropomorphic cartoon paperclip who haunted old versions of Microsoft Word. Time and again, Clippy would pop up, offering advice on even the most pathetically simple tasks – “you look like you’re writing a letter, would you like help?”
Mr Rees-Mogg demonstrated a Clippy-style, smiley persistence and a hint of the virtual PA’s goggle-eyed quality as he rattled on about the Tory police tradition. “You look like you’re asking a tricky question about crime rates, would you like to hear about Robert Peel founding the London Met in 1829?”
Poor Thangam Debbonaire, like the 1990s’ Microsoft user, looked desperate to disable the irritating office assistant – but to no avail.
The SNP’s Pete Wishart – rarely given to a crisp precis of his thoughts when a rambling theatrical monologue will do – raged at the return of in person proceedings to Westminster. He praised Holyrood MSPs’ good sense in tuning in virtually, unlike the Commons at PMQs.
“All 650 members could attend if they wanted to, and yesterday a good proportion of them turned up to a packed chamber,” he said – spitting out the word “packed” with disgust, in the manner of a 19th-century temperance campaigner excoriating the perils of the “demon drink”.