UK Politics

MP hits back over Cameron's Yes Minister retort

A Conservative MP told by David Cameron that he "needs a bit of a sense of humour" has hit back in a row over the power of civil servants in government.

The PM appeared to chide Douglas Carswell after he asked him how true to life sitcom Yes Minister was in its portrayal of mandarin Sir Humphrey.

The MP said it was "a serious question which deserved a proper answer".

Some Tory colleagues have rallied to defend Mr Carswell and questioned Mr Cameron's Commons response.

The exchange took place towards the end of Wednesday's Prime Minister's Questions - the first since the Easter recess - when Mr Cameron was taking questions from backbenchers.

'Frustrating reform'

In the popular sitcoms Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister, top mandarin Sir Humphrey Appleby regularly thwarts the plans of minister Jim Hacker.

In the Commons, Mr Carswell asked Mr Cameron: "A few weeks ago in this House I asked the prime minister to what extent he believed the Whitehall machine - the Sir Humphrey factor - was frustrating reform. He assured us it was not.

"According to the Financial Times, in Malaysia last week the PM said 'as prime minister I can tell you Yes Minister is true to life'. Can the prime minister tell us what has happened to change his mind?"

In response, Mr Cameron said: "There are a few occasions when I think the honourable gentleman (Mr Carswell) needs a bit of a sense of humour."

His response was greeted by whistles from the Labour benches and prompted an immediate response from several Conservative MPs and commentators.

Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative MP for Richmond Park, wrote on Twitter that he was "disappointed" by the PM's response as it appeared to be an "absolute dismissal of an important question".

Writing on the influential ConservativeHome website , former MP Paul Goodman said the move was a "bad call" by the prime minister - comparing it to an exchange last year when Mr Cameron was criticised for appearing to describe backbench MP Nadine Dorries as "frustrated".

"His capital in the bank with Tory MPs isn't limitless and it's an error to spend it recklessly," Mr Goodman wrote.

'No real rebuke'

And Conservative Sarah Wollaston wrote that the MP had "good advice" for Mr Cameron and she hoped "he doesn't give it the brush off given to Douglas".

But Conservative deputy chairman Michael Fallon said he believed the PM had intended the remark as a "humorous response".

"In the heat of the chamber, the prime minister and Ed Miliband have to respond extremely quickly," he told the BBC. "I am sure he will have a word with him afterwards and say that no real rebuke was intended."

Mr Carswell - who has frequently rebelled against the government over Europe - has said he will "get over it" and told the BBC he would continue to ask "awkward" questions.

"I asked a serious question and it deserved a proper answer," he said. "If we are in government to reform things why aren't we?

"I'm not in politics to ingratiate myself with party bosses in London. I am in politics to give people who voted for me the type of government they voted for."

The MP stressed he "could do humour" when he wanted to, but said "the folk I represent in Clacton are not laughing about the Budget right now, they're not laughing about the economy not growing".

Mr Carswell has suggested other MPs shared his concerns about the balance of power between ministers and civil servants, and believed fewer decisions should be taken by unelected officials and bodies.

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