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13 June 2018

Jeremy Corbyn should revive his old approach to PMQs

The Labour leader is better at attacking Theresa May than David Cameron, but the advantages of giving up the earlier format are smaller than they look.

By Stephen Bush

I am part of a very small group of people who think Jeremy Corbyn’s original method of doing Prime Ministers Questions was good.

Many of the staffers from that time have since moved on. One of them, Tom Hamilton, is the co-author of an excellent new book, Punch and Judy Politics, which is half-history book, half insider’s guide to the session. But its architects are still in place and are mong Corbyn’s most trusted and influential aides: yet the practice has effectively been mothballed.

Part of the attraction was that Corbyn, having never served on the frontbench in any capacity, had never spoken from the Despatch Box before, and was against David Cameron, who knew the format backwards, both from doing it himself and from preparing previous Tory leaders for it.

Cameron was a superior Commons performer to Corbyn, so simply avoiding the fight was a good defensive strategy. Although Cameron fairly quickly learned how to deal with the new format – as the former PM reflects in Punch and Judy Politics, once he worked out that he should treat the sessions as like a radio call-in, another arena  in which he was very comfortable – it also benefited Corbyn too.

Given the disastrous birth and execution of the attempts to remove the Labour leader in the summer of 2016, I doubt that being regularly shellacked by Cameron at PMQs would have tipped the balance in favour of Owen Smith. But it certainly helped Corbyn that he hadn’t spent the first year of his leadership being regularly defeated in the House of Commons.

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Viewed solely through that lens, the decision to abandon the old approach, now that Cameron has been replaced by Theresa May, is a good one. May does not do good House of Commons and her performances, which were never great, have noticeably dipped since the loss of her parliamentary majority, which took a great deal of her self-confidence with it. Corbyn is hegemonic internally so has little to fear from the occasional defeat. Thus, the risks of returning to the old style are low and the benefits – the ability to pull out a genuine win, such as the one Corbyn achieved today – are considerably higher.

Except the other value to PMQs from the opposition’s perspective, as Punch and Judy Politics shows, is to prosecute its big strategic arguments over a prolonged period. Corbyn’s big strategic argument is that British politics, economics and society all need to change and that only he is capable of bringing about that change. Changing how PMQs is done is a bigger opportunity lost for Corbyn than he gains from regularly defeating a subpar May.