David Cameron: man or mouse?
Very occasionally (thankfully), a senior Tory MP will articulate a certain negative view about a senior colleague or even the entire Conservative Party which reverberates down the ages. Remember Theresa May's conference speech reference to the 'nasty party'? That phrase was almost exclusively responsible for David Cameron's entire programme of 'brand decontamination' which gave us 'Vote Blue go Green', huskies on glaciers, 'hug a hoodie', 'the NHS is safe in our hands', and the more caring and compassionate 'Blue Labour', not to mention the A-list of candidates to ensure the election of more soft and cuddly women, gays, lesbians and ethnic minorities.
And let us not forget Ann Widdecombe's 'something of the night' comment about Michael Howard, which spawned years of Dracula cartoons which dogged his entire leadership (and beyond). Ms Widdecombe explained the strategy: "Then I tried it on a couple of other people who reacted similarly and I thought 'Right, I've got a phrase that people understand'. You only understand a phrase like that if you don't have to explain it. Ten years later, people often ask me to explain it and at this point I can't, because the whole idea was that it spoke to people's instincts at the time."
The enduring potential of the damning phrase is not only contingent on demotic instinct, but is directly proportionate to the seniority or public profile of the politician expressing the view. A back-bench gripe about ham-fisted party management or an out-of-touch prime minister might cause temporary inconvenience in the media, but nothing lasting.
But Tim Yeo has struck gold with his 'man or mouse' jibe at David Cameron. As Chairman of the 'hug-a-huskie' Energy and Climate Change Select Committee he wields real power even if he's utterly unknown to the general public. he was an original Cameroon and also a fierce advocate of the Coalition. All of which makes his comment all the more damning.
One expects such barbed comments from 'the Right' of the Party, but when the Wets start to round on their own man in No10, it is difficult to see how the Prime Minister can recover. His Grace can hear it now: every question of Ed Miliband at PMQs will end with: '..is he a man or a mouse?'. And there will be roars of scorn and much waving of order papers. And Mr Cameron will squeak his way through a feeble response which no-one really hears, for the damage is done - permanently.
Mr Yeo warned that Britain will 'slide towards insignificance' without a third runway at Heathrow. Little does he realise that he's done more to shunt the Prime Minister towards insignificance than any broadside from Nadine Dorries.
“The Prime Minister must decide whether he is a man or a mouse,” he said. “Does he want to be another Harold Macmillan, presiding over a dignified slide towards insignificance? Or is there somewhere inside his heart a trace of Thatcher?”
We already know the answer: it speaks to people's instincts. Tim Yeo has just gifted Labour an entire general election campaign. He might even have assisted Alex Salmond's independence bid with 'Ur ye a man ur a moose?'. And the cartoonists will have many field days with the rodent-killing skills of Larry the Downing Street Cat. Poor Mr Cameron.