HOME SECRETARY James Cleverly has issued a very sorry excuse for an apology. He now claims he was aiming his four-letter word at Stockton North’s MP rather than at the constituency itself.

This won’t wash. It feels like an excuse cooked up after the event to explain it away. Perhaps we should get the Beatles’ technical wizards in to listen to the tape and work out exactly what was said.

But the explanation is still disgraceful. Alex Cunningham was asking an extremely serious question about child poverty – one of the issues which levelling up should be addressing – and did not deserve a volley of abuse as an answer.

The Home Secretary may be Cleverly by name but he is clearly not by nature. He has, as Lord Houchen said, dragged Stockton through the mud when people like the Tees Valley mayor are trying to talk it up to win outside investment. Stockton doesn’t deserve to be dragged through the mud as, for just one example, it is bravely trying to reconfigure its high street.

Mr Cleverly has harmed the Conservative cause. The Autumn Statement gave Tory candidates in the Tees Valley something positive to talk about – a £450 tax reduction for everyone – and yet all that has been lost in a foul mouth flurry.

Mr Cleverly also embarrassed Richard Holden, a Durham MP and the new party chairman, who on Thursday night was forced to defend the Home Secretary, saying that no such words were deployed – and yet Mr Cleverly has now apologised for using such a word.

Swear words are nowadays everywhere but many people, perhaps most people, would be disciplined if they’d aimed such words at a colleague in a professional meeting.

Rishi Sunak will probably hope the sorry sideshow will go away, but 20 years ago, a Conservative leader realised how damaging to the wider Conservative brand it was for one of his ministers to insult a northern conurbation, and he sent that minister to visit it with his tail between his legs. That conurbation was Liverpool, that leader was Michael Howard and that offending shadow minister was Boris Johnson – Mr Sunak should defend the honour of Stockton by taking similar action.