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16 September 2015

Jeremy Corbyn’s new approach to PMQs is the right tactic

Week-to-week, these quieter sessions are Jeremy Corbyn's best approach to tussling with David Cameron. 

By Stephen Bush

In 2004, Jeremy Corbyn once signed an early day motion in Parliament describing Arsenal as “the best club football team in the world at the moment”, but his first PMQs owed more to the ultra-defensive  Jose Mourinho than to Arsenal’s attack-minded coach Arsène Wenger.

His new innovation drew on another early day motion the Islington North MP has signed: one deploring the shouting and the theatrics of Prime Ministers’ Questions. The British people overwhelmingly agree with Corbyn on the grim spectacle of PMQs and the need for it to be changed, so, for the first time since his victory on Saturday, Labour’s leader is on the front foot on the right side of public opinion.  

Remember, too, that the most important thing in elections aren’t the “Who won that?” responses immediately afterwards, but what, if anything, filters through to the half-second of news between music on the radio. “Jeremy Corbyn calls for PMQs to be scrapped” isn’t a bad statement of intent for someone who can only win on a populist, anti-Westminster ticket.

Corbyn’s innovation – taking questions from the general public – meant that Cameron couldn’t lay into him as he did Ed Miliband. The SNP’s Angus Robertson showed the foolishness of this approach against the Prime Minister after Corbyn had sat down, when he came off much the worse in his tussle with Cameron.

 If Corbyn goes about PMQs as an old-style Westminster shouting, Cameron will win every week: he’ll hit him on the IRA, on the national anthem, and on whatever, fairly or unfairly, has been dug out of his 32 years of sometimes highly dubious associations.

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But by asking questions taken from ordinary people, Cameron was forced into a posture of courtesy. Unfortunately, the downside for this, as George notes, is that it made the occasion resemble a radio phone-in, which Cameron does  exceptionally well at (since 2013, the PM has done a different phone-in every Friday, honing his skills).

Yes, it means that Corbyn will be unable to hold Cameron’s feet to the fire as easily as Ed Miliband did: but bluntly Miliband’s victories over phone-hacking and bankers’ bonuses did very little for him in May. The risks of that approach for Corbyn are high: as one staffer frankly acknowledged, “if JC attempts any kind of cut and thrust *at all* he will get shredded by DC for his own various positions”.  

Quiet, civil sessions like this are Corbyn’s best possible outcome: and today’s PMQs is his first real triumph since becoming leader.