There was a tense atmosphere on Conservative benches today as David Cameron faced his first challenge at Prime Minister’s Question Time by Labour’s newly-elected leader Jeremy Corbyn – and the results were astonishing.
To those new to PMQs, this is a weekly 30 minute session where the Opposition Leader and MPs get to grill the PM on anything they like. You can learn more about it here.
Anyone who has any doubt as to the success of Corbyn’s approach today needs to rewatch BBC2’s Daily Politics. The entire thrust of the show prior to PMQs was predicated on failure. The first days of Corbyn’s leadership were defined, the pundits pronounced, by disarray and in-fighting. The White Poppy, the refusal to sing God Save The Queen, the Parliamentary Labour Party’s reluctance to support their new leader. All this was going to come over in glorious technicolor during this first PMQs, they said.
A quiet, suited Corbyn began his questions with an acknowledgement of those who elected him leader, and claimed that while he was touring the country, speaking to people in villages, towns and cities across the land, he was asked most often to change the tone of PMQs, to make it less “triumphalist”.
This is significant because Cameron’s promises of “an end to Punch and Judy politics” back in 2005 came to nothing – and the PM is known for losing his temper and becoming personal and unprofessional at the despatch box. You will recall his infamously sexist response to Labour’s Angela Eagle in 2011, when he told the then Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury to ‘Calm down, dear’.
While Cameron did well to embrace the offer, he very soon began to appear uncomfortable as Corbyn hit him repeatedly with quiet, forensic questions that came direct from the public. The Labour Leader decided to crowd source his PMQs, inviting the public to send him the questions to which they most want answers. He received over 40,000.
Corbyn followed a simple formula. He explained how many people emailed him about an issue, he picked one of the questions on that issue, and he launched it at the PM. His first question shows just how effective this approach might be in coming months.
“Two and a half thousand people emailed me on the housing crisis in this country, and I ask one from a woman called Marie, who says: ‘What does the government intend to do about the chronic lack of affordable housing and the extortionate rents charged by some private sector landlords in this country?'”
“We do need to see more affordable housing in our country. We delivered 260,000 affordable housing units in the last parliament. We built more council houses in our country than the previous 13 years had been managed. But I recognise much more needs to be done.”
Cameron’s statement here is fill of holes, in fact, outright lies.
By forcing Cameron onto the ground of facts, and defending his record in numbers, Corbyn opens the Prime Minister up to a greater degree of probity than he normally endures.
After PMQs, a clearly startled and stunned BBCDP team were without negative comment. Andrew Neil immediately followed the scent of Corbyn’s attack, laying into Tory MP Ed Vaizey over housing. Vaizey stared meekly at Neill, unable to defend the record.
“How many did you build in 2013/4?” Neil asks. To which Vaizey responds with the wrong answer, and the exchange continues as below.
Neil: “134,000. It’s 100,000 short of what we require. How many have you built in the financial year that ended this April?”
Neil: “You built 137,000, which is 3,000 more than the previous year. So in other words, it’s static. There is no housing boom. In this country, for the second year running, you were 100,000 behind what we need. This housing crisis can only get worse.”
Co-host Jo Coburn was wide-eyed with excitement as she rolled back into the studio following the questions. Asked how it felt, she replied:
“Extraordinary, actually. I literally got the last seat in the House.
I have never seen the chamber so packed, to the rafters. On the public gallery side, on the press gallery side, and most definitely within the chamber itself.
It was also completely different to any other PMQs I’ve watched in the sense that there was so much anticipation.
I could only see the Tory MPs from where my seat was and they looked a little nervous, a little bit ‘I don;t know whats coming here.’
Even George Osborne and David Cameron looked a little bit apprehensive.”
Corbyn used his six questions to cover the housing crisis, mental health, tax credits and the issues most important to the public – and it worked. But if any exchange proved Cameron’s discomfort it came between the PM and SNP MP Angus Robertson. When Robertson challenged the PM on his failure to deliver the promised Home Rule to Scotland, a year to the day after promising to do so, the PM became visibly flustered. Mr Cameron rushed his reply, finishing by sniping at Robertson:
“Are you, when it comes to talking about the issues, Frit?!” (the Scottish colloquial term for frightened)
There was roaring from the Conservative benches before a quiet Robertson took to his feet again, looked cooly at the PM and replied:
“Very interesting. What happened to the new style of PMQs from the Prime Minister?”
Just 15 minutes after making his promise, Cameron had already forgotten it, and broken it – neatly summing up his entire Prime Minister-ship.
Corbyn will need to find a way of including a comeback to Cameron’s answers – the PM should not be allowed to leave these factually inaccurate responses dangling in the air. It is also clear that Corbyn is facing opponents infront and behind him at PMQs – but that shouldn’t come as news to anybody.
However, what this approach ensures is that those of us in the progressive media, who bear the responsibility to act as the Fourth Estate (in the absence of much of the mainstream press), are then able to hoist Cameron on his own petard, week after week. Corbyn is, in essence, forcing Cameron to lose ground publicly at PMQs by telling the truth, or lose ground publicly after PMQs by telling lies that can be unpicked after the fact. Better yet, he’s using your questions to do it.
Politics just got interesting again.
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