Cameron jokey at civil servants' do

The prime minister was in mischievous form at the Civil Service Awards at Lancaster House tonight.

Before handing out an award, the PM praised the officials ranged before him for working in such challenging circumstances. By which he meant not austerity but coalition.

"Coalition can be a bit like a marriage," he said. "There are the arguments, the tantrums, the squabbling, the making up in the morning (pause for dramatic effect)... and that's just Nick and Vince."

Such is the "new politics" 18 months out from an election. On one level it is semi-authorised mutual mockery that allows both sides to let off steam. It shows the relationship is healthy enough to withstand a little light banter.

But on another it suggests Mr Cameron is beginning to remember that Labour is not his only opponent. Remember, he made this joke in front of civil servants, many of whom have to serve Lib Dem ministers as much as Conservatives.

Mr Cameron also spoke of how he had spent the last week meeting Commonwealth leaders, middle eastern potentates and social media executives: "I have been standing up for Tamils, selling aeroplanes and blocking porn. I was convinced I was going to get it the wrong way round."

One other point of note. Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude is not always a popular figure in civil service circles. Some fear his reforming zeal.

Tonight he thanked civil servants warmly for their work but he was as uncompromising as ever. "Some people ask me when it is going to end," he said. "I say never. That is because (civil service reform) is always work in progress. Civil service reform is about making a service that is faster and more unified."

I can report that the audience applauded Mr Cameron's jokes more warmly than Mr Maude's cautionary tale.