Jeremy Corbyn knew that he wouldn’t succeed at PMQs-as-usual. So rather than trying to play the game, he tried to change it. After crowdsourcing his questions and receiving more than 40,000 responses, he posed teasers from “Marie, “Stephen” and “Angela” on housing, tax credits mental health. “Many told me that they thought PMQs was too theatrical, that Parliament was out of touch and they wanted things done differently, but above all they want their voice heard,” he explained in his lengthy opening statement. It was a disarming tactic that allowed Corbyn to emerge unscatched after a chaotic start. David Cameron was unable to swat away a man who cast himself as the people’s tribune; the Tory benches remained silent. Sticking tightly to his script, the Labour leader was calm, if rather verbose.
For his first PMQs, and his first frontbench appearance, Corbyn’s approach was a qualified success. But if he maintains this tack in future weeks it is Cameron who will surely benefit. Though the PM was unable to land blows in his usual manner, he was also largely unsettled. The session was comparable to one of the phone-ins, or public Q&A sessions, at which he often excels. As he moved steadily from question to question, Corbyn showed no spontaneity and posed no follow-ups. Yet it is this that a leader of the opposition must do if they are to succeed and to truly hold the prime minister to account. Through lawyerly, forensic questioning on issues such as phone-hacking and banking, Ed Miliband often managed to trump Cameron and define the news agenda. Could Corbyn? The test for him will not be whether he can relay questions from the public but whether he can turn a Wednesday morning crisis to his advantage. On that, the jury remains out. The furrowed brows on the Labour benches suggested that they know as much.
The most dramatic moment of the session came when the DUP’s Westminster leader Nigel Dodds rose to his feet. After paying tribute to the victims of the Brighton bombing, he recalled new shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s 2003 praise for the IRA (“It’s about time we started honouring those people involved in the armed struggle. It was the bombs and bullets and sacrifice made by the likes of Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table. The peace we have now is due to the action of the IRA.”) and demanded that Cameron “join with all of us on all sides of the House in denouncing that sentiment?”
The PM replied: “I have a simple view which is the terrorism we faced was wrong, it was unjustifiable … People who seek to justify it should be ashamed of themselves.” Among those who solemnly nodded on the Labour benches was Angela Eagle. Dodds’s question and Cameron’s answer exemplified just why it was that so many Labour MPs and trade unions wanted her, rather than McDonnell, to become shadow chancellor.