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Me, a liar? Cleverly ‘did not, would not and would never...’

James Cleverly in Home Office Questions on Monday
James Cleverly said his earlier comments about Stockton had in fact been about the constituency MP - AFP

For his debut taking Commons’ questions as Home Secretary, James Cleverly wore the tired, irritated face of a man calculating how much money he could be making doing any job other than this.

Two weeks ago he was the foreign secretary, hobnobbing with kings and the centre-folds of National Geographic.

Then Rishi dragged him home for an unwelcome reunion with British MPs - one that he passed verdict on at last week’s Prime Minister’s Questions, when Alex Cunningham, the MP for Stockton North, asked why his constituents are so poor.

Recollections vary as to whether Cleverly said it was because Stockton was a s---hole or Mr Cunningham is a s--- MP.

Either way, Cleverly suddenly has a s---storm to deal with, prompting Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, to ask if he was “up a certain kind of creek without a paddle”.

Cleverly flashed her a manure-munching grin. Somewhere, in a five-star hotel, David Cameron was consuming his bodyweight in Ferrero Rocher.

No magician

Imagine going from chatting with the sultan of Brunei’s delightful wife number four to being interrogated by Ms Cooper, MP for Rubbish Tip South, who has the charm of a minor official asking if you packed this bag yourself.

“Twelve days ago,” she declared, “[Cleverly] said asylum hotel spaces are down. Four days ago, [official] figures show they are up… Does he even know what is going on?”

Cleverly replied “Yes I do”, and for a moment looked as if he was going to leave it at that, till nervous laughter prompted him to add that a fortnight in office is not enough time to turn things around. “I’m good but I’m not a magician.”

Lib Dem Richard Foord (Cesspit-on-Avon), asked if, like Suella Braverman, the new Home Secretary had made any “deals” with the PM as a condition for his reluctant appointment? “Fantastic question, well worth asking,” replied Cleverly drily, restraining himself from observing that whatever Stockton North is made from, the Lib Dems are full of it.

But his torture was far from complete. Cunningham - an MP I’d never heard of but whose name is now well and truly on the map - later raised a point of order demanding an apology from the Home Secretary, who returned to the Chamber to deliver a “sorry but not sorry” for the history books.

Alex Cunningham, Labour MP for Stockton North
Alex Cunningham damanded an apology for Cleverly's 'derogatory' remarks - IAN FORSYTH/GETTY IMAGES EUROPE

“For the avoidance of doubt,” he told a House that was silent but for barely repressed giggling, “the honourable gentleman accused me of making derogatory remarks about his constituency… I did not, would not and would never make such comments about his constituents. What I said was a comment about him.”

“Well that’s alright then!” cried Mr Cunningham, and accused Cleverly of insincerity.

“What are you calling me, sir?” demanded Mr Cleverly. A liar, obviously - which prompted a swift intervention by the Speaker. Thus we were treated to the spectacle, possible only under our magnificently arcane system, of an MP having to retract his criticism of a minister who called him s--- because the word “liar” breeches parliamentary etiquette.

Honour restored, Cleverly returned to his new office to stare angrily at Facebook updates from Dave Cameron – who, I believe, is currently representing UK interests at the International Champagne Festival in Tahiti.

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