Dear Boris, it's your sister who is the mugwump, not Jeremy Corbyn

Tom Peck
The Foreign Secretary has ‘demeaned his office’, according to one Labour shadow minister: Yui Mok/PA Wire

In the run-up to the 2010 election, Nick Clegg became uncharacteristically angry about a story about him in the Daily Mail. In an unremarkable profile on the then not yet Deputy Prime Minister, the paper had claimed that he had once been dropped from the Westminster school tennis team.

“This is completely untrue,” sources close to Nick Clegg occasionally say Nick Clegg told an aide. “I played every match. Call them up and demand a retraction.”

Said aide, sources close to Nick Clegg say, replied thus: “Nick, have you seen what’s on the front page? They’re calling you a Nazi. Are you sure you want us to ring up about the tennis?”

It is at this point that we consider the onslaught of media abuse to which Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been subjected to over the past 18 months, and try to work out what prompted the party’s uncharacteristically speedy rebuttal on Thursday morning, to Boris Johnson labelling him a "mutton-headed mugwump" in a column for The Sun.

That the Foreign Secretary had, according to Labour housing minister John Healey, “demeaned his office” in calling the Labour leader a mutton-headed mugwump, was sufficient in the eyes of Radio 4 Today programme producers to elevate this incident to a matter of national importance far surpassing, for example, the rising likelihood of conventional-bombing Syria or nuclear-bombing North Korea.

As the old saying goes, throw enough mugwump, it sticks. Suddenly all anyone could say was mugwump. This afternoon an interviewer from BBC Radio Derbyshire asked Theresa May: “Do you know what a mugwump is?” Which, if nothing else, is a question to which she at least cannot just reply: “What this country needs is strong and stable government.”

(Which is, of course, precisely what she did.)

What can you do eh? “Boris will be Boris,” his growing band of growingly reluctant apologists will always be forced to say. At least a mugwump is not an explicit reference to the Nazis, and Jeremy Corbyn is not a German with whom we are about to negotiate the nation's future.

Though it is not, as many immediately assumed, a reference to the family of circus monkeys tortured by Mr and Mrs Twit in Roald Dahl’s The Twits.

As it happens, I had made that error myself last time I heard the phrase, which was last April when Sir Nicholas Soames described a fellow Conservative MP as an “ocean-going clot” and a “mugwump.” Which MP, you ask? Boris Johnson, of course.

In fact, in its most accepted usage, it describes Republican politicians in 1884 who, for political reasons, backed the Democrat candidate, and so bears absolutely no relevance whatsoever to the least strategic mainstream Western politician in a century.

It also happens to be descended from a Native American word for “war leader”, which you or I might think further limits its application to a man with four decades of very public pacifism on his personal record.

Still, Boris will be Boris. Colourful language.

He also, by the way, called Jeremy Corbyn an “Islington herbivore”, a phrase so quintessentially Boris he stole it from the playwright Michael Frayn.

Yes, sadly, if you want a feel of something that’s pure 100 per cent Johnson, the best you can do is still wait until high summer to ride his superheated Routemaster bus with no windows or air conditioning, or take a ride in the Commuter Cable Car to Nowhere, that is now selling booze on Friday nights to quite literally stay above water.

Meanwhile, his sister Rachel has announced she has defected to the Liberal Democrats to stop a hard Brexit, telling a moving tale of how her 19-year-old son Oliver cried on the morning after the referendum and said: “Boris has stolen our futures.”

Temporarily switching political allegiance for strategic purposes? Who’d do a think like that? We can be assured brother Boris will be on the hand with the appropriately niche vituperation.