Crashing bores have had Prime Minister’s Questions in their sights for years now.
All those vinegar-faced finger-waggers who want “new politics” and “consensus” and “engagement” – that is, political debate without the debate – have been itching to turn the weekly spectacle into a half-hour of polite head-nodding.
They want to make it… constructive.
Today they got their wish when Jeremy Corbyn stood up at the despatch box. The new leader of the opposition, boosted into that office for his passion and unswerving dedication to radical politics, decided to gently prod the Prime Minister with some worthy queries submitted by members of the public.
Members. Of. The. Actual. Public.
So we heard from Marie and Steven on housing, Paul and Claire on tax credits, Gail and Angela on mental health. Each had a valid question but channeled through the genially sincere Corbyn it all sounded like a particularly sedate episode of Gardeners’ Question Time.
As figurehead of a movement driven by hatred for Tory scum, you would think Corbyn could front an inquisition a touch more fearsome than “Bronwen from Aberystwyth says next door’s cat keeps traipsing through her hydrangeas and the council won’t do anything. What about that, then?”
We can add PMQs to the long list of great British institutions Corbyn just doesn’t get. PMQs is not for civilians. Civilians already have call-in radio, taxi journeys, Facebook, Question Time and poorly planned pre-election ministerial visits to Ebola-ridden hospitals.
The Wednesday lunchtime clash is for us: The politicians, the hacks, the card-carriers and the grudge-bearers – political obsessives professional and hobbying. We huddle round crummy livestreams – the fortunate few get to cram into The Gallery – and oooh and aaah at every jab and counterpunch.
We live for the awkward question, the punchy putdown and that judicious spit of verbal acid: Cameron taunting Ed Miliband about “knifing a foreign secretary in the back” is still deliciously painful to watch. We love planted questions because they give us the chance to snort “toady” and if the Whips’ gimp de la semaine fouls up their prepared script all the better.
The two sword lengths between the government and opposition despatch boxes symbolise the supremacy of democracy over brute force. But the Commons is a psychological battlefield, pitched somewhere between public school dormitory and Sunday afternoon bloodsport. It is an arena of wills, egos, and practised sadism.
Schoolmarms recoil from all this and yet “Punch and Judy politics” is what keeps the executive in check. Ministers with something to hide dread the killer question that exposes their cock-up; they have nothing to fear from a Socratic seminar on The Important Issues.
Corbyn didn’t land a blow on Cameron but, worse, he didn’t seem to want to. Still in backbencher mode, he raised questions with the Prime Minister on behalf of his (political) constituents, allowing Cameron to reply, always remembering to namecheck the punter, and explain what his government was doing to address the problem. Instead of opposing the Conservative leader, Corbyn acted as a Q&A moderator between the PM and the public. He needn’t have been there at all.
The question of the day belonged to Nigel Dodds. The gruff Ulsterman began by reciting the names Airey Neave, Robert Bradford, Ian Gow and Sir Anthony Berry and right away it was clear where this was going. These MPs had been murdered by the IRA, just four of the many victims of the “savagery and brutality” of republican terrorism. What, the DUP man rasped, did the Prime Minister make of Jeremy Corbyn appointing as his shadow chancellor someone “who believes that terrorists should be honoured for their bravery”?
John McDonnell, when he is not musing about assassinating Margaret Thatcher or overthrowing capitalism, is a fan of the men in balaclavas. Bobby Sands, the Provo gun-runner who died on hunger strike in 1981, is a particular favourite.
This gave Cameron another opportunity to play the statesman, claiming the moral high ground and slapping down Corbyn’s fringe politics without breathing the man’s name: “My view is simple: the terrorism we faced was wrong. It was unjustifiable. The death and the killing was wrong. It was never justified, and people who seek to justify it should be ashamed of themselves.”
The Tories know they must pull their punches on Corbyn. Make it about Labour. How far Labour has strayed from the mainstream. How Labour is out of touch with the British people. Avoid personal attacks; you don’t want to look like you’re battering a pensioner and draw public sympathy for him. Above all, the object is to keep Corbyn in the job until the next election. He is the most extreme leader in the history of the Labour Party. Play this right and the Conservatives could bury their opponents in a bigger landslide than Mrs T’s 1983 avalanche.
To achieve this delicate balance, the Tories will need to be smart, agile, disciplined, and sunny even when they would rather be snarly. The New Politics has some uses after all.