So Jeremy Corbyn’s first PMQs is over. Far from being the car crash that was being predicted, with Cameron belting out the national anthem before wheeling out some Hezbollah fighters and asking him to choose between them, it was a rather dull affair, in keeping with Jeremy’s ‘new approach to PMQs’. The braying and raised tempers rarely made appearances as Corbyn instead chose to proceed with ‘Marie wants to know about housing’, ‘Steven emails about the financial trouble his family is in’ etc. All-in-all it was an interesting change to Prime Minister’s Questions, but it left a far bigger question: will it work for Corbyn?
Well, with a few tweaks, I actually think this could be a very effective strategy. It has two big advantages over the old system. The main one is that it is a lot harder for Cameron to come back with an insulting, dismissive reply when faced with an actual question from a voter. When Ed Miliband said he was concerned about housing, Cameron could come back pretty easily with ‘WHY DO YOU HAVE TWO KITCHENS THEN? DON’T SOCIALISTS ALL WANT TO LEAVE IN COMMUNES ANYWAY LOL’ etc. Tiresome, but it shut down questions pretty quickly. In contrast, he really can’t just shout down a concerned voter from Basildon worried about cuts to schooling in their area.
The other big plus is that it makes PMQs more relatable for the viewing public. Labour is always faced by the risk of being seen as bien pensant liberals sat in parliament talking about things of which they have no real-world experience. This was a problem for ‘North London Millionaire’ Ed Miliband and would also be for ‘Privately educated North London MP’ Jeremy Corbyn. When actually quoting “real people™”, this criticism can hardly be leveled. Furthermore, it gives watchers evidence that people really are struggling in the UK, and it’s not just some leftie propaganda dreamt up in Brewer’s Green.
However, the big downside of this approach was pointed out by many. Cameron was effectively given free reign to spew out a brief version of the Tory manifesto. He was able to appear calm and measured while simply giving answers like ‘Of course we are worried about Susan’s flat, and this is how we plan to address it’. Even though they were basically the same fob-off answers you usually get when you write to MPs, there was nothing really in his responses that could be pulled apart or jeered at. It allowed him to appear statesmanlike and concerned – his best qualities – rather than rattled, short-tempered and incoherent – his worst.
If I were advising Corbyn now, I would suggest he uses a question or two from the public to set the scene and lay into Cameron with his own questions. ‘Kahlil is worried about cuts to policing in Reading’ followed by Jeremy’s own attacks about cuts and public services could be genuinely effective. It would allow the premise to be set by a concerned member of the public, but then the leader of the Labour Party to champion their cause and take the Tories to task. For all his faults, Corbyn today showed that he is at least competent at PMQs, and, with a bit of honing his approach, I would not underestimate him.