This was meant to be Christmas come early for the Conservatives. After months of ‘surely-they-can’t’ and days of ‘they-actually-did’, it was time for the Left’s chosen one to go head-to-head with the Prime Minister. Jeremy Corbyn’s damp squib of a speech to the TUC the previous day - long on Socialist dog whistles; short on reality - had assured even the most Leftward of observers that, if he should so choose, David Cameron could effortlessly defenestrate his opposite number from the despatch box. Bland rhetoric does not a leader make, and Corbyn had given no indication that he would suddenly reveal himself to be the second coming of Demosthenes.
Shortly before midday, the Prime Minister entered the Chamber to a veritable cacophony. Corbyn, by contrast, was greeted with muted muttering - a ‘respectful silence,’ if you will. With the formalities out of the way, up shuffled the Leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition with a fistful of crowdsourced questions. In his ill-fitting suit, and his reading glasses perched precariously on the tip of his nose, he once again resembled an overworked Geography teacher (no doubt a local NUT rep). At least he had managed to locate his top button today, though.
At first, it seemed as though Corbyn had mistaken the session’s title, with a question nowhere to be found as he rambled on about making PMQs more ‘adult’ and his egalitarian plan to allow submissions from the public. Finally though, a question, courtesy of one ‘Marie’ - predictably about housing. Those hoping for fireworks were left disappointed. The Prime Minister was both respectful and measured, endorsing Corbyn’s vision of a ‘new PMQs.’ Of course, it helps that the the line of questioning that he faced was the antithesis of taxing. Cameron did afford himself one moment of playfulness though, chastising a boorish Labour MP. “I thought this was the new question time? I’m not sure the message has fully got home!” he grinned, hinting at the broader picture within the Labour Party.
Whilst the act of taking suggestions directly from the public served to protect Corbyn - after all, it’s unwise to attack a man hiding behind a shield of voters’ questions - it also served to emphasise his paucity of oratory skill. With his head buried in his notes and an unwaveringly dull tone, there was a conspicuous lack of vocal support from his benches: whether that was due to his delivery or his policies is a discussion for another day. It was an amateurish performance, more akin to a drive-time radio show than an opportunity to put the Prime Minister under pressure. An insipid, scripted effort from Corbyn was underlined by a complete absence of follow up questions; the most piercing weapon in the opposition examiner’s armoury. Cameron would no doubt receive a more incisive interrogation on Loose Women, and in a more hostile atmosphere to boot.
Prime Minister’s Questions is the proving ground for leaders, designed to illustrate debating prowess and nimble political reaction, not the ability to read out-loud. One has to wonder how long this ‘adult’ PMQs will last, especially given that Cameron seized the opportunity to appear calm, knowledgeable and statesmanlike. There was, finally, a return to the theatrics of years gone by, but only when the SNP’s Angus Robertson took his turn. Perhaps, as they have postured, the SNP might just be the Prime Minister’s main opposition now.