When Tony Blair’s government was introducing its unpopular tuition fees policy, quick-witted education secretary Alan Johnson announced he and his minister of state, the burly bruiser Charles Clarke, had embarked on a charm offensive to win over rebel MPs.
“I did the charm and Charles was offensive,” quipped Mr Johnson. And that was before his hugely successful trilogy of memoirs made him a national treasure.
Now, on a day in which she launched a desperate eleventh-hour bid to persuade MPs to vote for her Brexit deal, Theresa May managed to do both charm and offensive on her own.
She spent hours attempting to charm MPs of all parties in a series of meetings in her Commons office. Then she went on TV and was offensive to MPs, insulting them and questioning their motives.
Earlier, in Prime Minister’s Questions, she accused the House of Commons of “contemplating its navel” and said it had “indulged itself on Europe for too long”.
She didn’t go quite that far as she addressed the nation, looking straight into a TV camera in an almost empty room inside Number 10, from which journalists were excluded and therefore denied the opportunity to ask questions.
“You the public have had enough,” she declared in a primetime broadcast that clashed with the medical drama Holby City and – even more unforgivable, aficionados would argue – Coronation Street.
“You are tired of the infighting,” she lectured viewers. And she wasn’t talking about those who had switched over from the latest plot lines of bitching and family feuds in Corrie.
“You’re tired of the political games and the arcane procedural rows,” she said. “Tired of MPs talking about nothing else but Brexit when you have real concerns about our children’s schools, our National Health Service, knife crime.
“You want this stage of the Brexit process to be over and done with. I agree. I am on your side. It is now time for MPs to decide.”
“On your side”. That’s a slogan we’ve heard from a number of prime ministers. It was a particular favourite of Gordon Brown, as I recall.
“Power to the people,” said the Sun’s page one headline, which will have delighted the spinners in 10 Downing Street. “PM tells ‘tired’ Britain: I’m on your side,” said the Daily Express.
But the reaction of MPs was far less favourable. It was positively hostile, in fact.
The PM has shown she was “in complete denial”, said Jeremy Corbyn. “Pointless,” said Nicolas Sturgeon. “Disgraceful,” said wavering Labour MP Lisa Nandy.
The Conservative Remainer Sam Gyimah said the broadcast was “toxic”, claiming: “Resorting to the ‘blame game’ as the PM is doing is a low blow.”
And the Tory bible Conservative Home sneered: “There is one group of people among whom her gambit will have gone down with like a lorry load of lukewarm vomit: her own colleagues.”
The Labour MP Wes Streeting even said the PM’s statement was “incendiary and irresponsible” because of death threats to MPs.
“If any harm comes to any of us, she will have to accept her share of responsibility,” he said.
So just what was the point of this broadcast?
No doubt those in the PM’s inner circle will say it was to appeal over the heads of the bickering MPs to the voters. She told viewers, after all, that polling evidence suggests voters back her deal.
But hold on a minute. On Brexit, it’s not the people the prime minister needs to convince. It’s those pesky MPs who keep voting against her Brexit deal. And, on the evidence so far, it was a flop and has backfired.
“Is that it?” was a typical reaction from MPs. It was a re-statement of everything we have heard before and notable for what she didn’t say rather than what she did.
Despite frenzied speculation at Westminster and bookies stopping taking odds on one, there was nothing about a general election.
There was nothing about stepping down in June either, despite a heavy hint earlier in PMQs.
And there was only a brief mention of a referendum: “You don’t want a referendum and neither to I,” she said.
Well, let’s see how big the People’s Vote march and demo is this weekend, claimed Remainer MPs.
She was 15 minutes late for her broadcast, because her meetings with MPs in the Commons overran. And they didn’t go smoothly, either.
Before her meeting with opposition leaders, Jeremy Corbyn walked out and refused to attend because Chuka Umunna and Anna Soubry had turned up, representing The Independent Group. Yet in PMQs Mr Corbyn had asked the PM for a meeting!
The Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Vince Cable – who revealed the Corbyn walkout live on Sky News – immediately denounced the meeting with the PM as a waste of time.
It was then Anna Soubry’s turn to be outraged, because as her meeting ended, members of the Tories’ European Research Group were waiting to go into the PM’s office.
That was the final meeting. And that didn’t go well, either.
Some Tory MPs who switched to back her deal last week told the PM they could switch back and vote against next time. Some attacked the Brexit delay and others asked her when she was going to step down.
One MP who met the PM told me she smiles a lot in these meetings but doesn’t offer any concessions or hint of compromise. Another complained he wasn’t offered a drink at a meeting that started at 7.15pm!
So the charm didn’t work. And whether Mrs May intended to be or not, she was offensive to the very people she needs to persuade to vote for her Brexit deal, members of parliament.