Thursday, 17 September 2015

Jeremy Corbyn: The New PMQs Won't Work

This is starting to become real fun, listing how Dear Old Jezza is wrong about everything. His latest wheeze is changing the format of Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs), traditionally the highlight of the Parliamentary week, to a less abrasive format.

Typically, all the MPs squeeze into a packed House of Commons to watch the weekly bunfight between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. They also stand a chance of being able to ask the PM a question themselves, if they catch the Speaker's eye. It's the real cut and thrust of political debate - theatrical and occasionally artificial, but it's the only real bit of entertainment in the otherwise tedious and boring business of lawmaking.

David Cameron, it's fair to say, is pretty good at PMQs. He plays the man as often as the ball, and with both Brown and Miliband, made it a contest between personalities as well as policies. This has served him in good stead so far. Jezza is obviously pretty mindful of this, and given the unusual and occasionally downright dodgy things he has said in the past, is probably pretty keen to avoid being made a mockery of by Cameron. So he has come up with a couple of ideas which he now appears to be putting into practice.

1. Accepting Questions from the General Public
This is experiment number one, which was duly tried at PMQs yesterday. Normally, the Leader of the Opposition gets to ask six questions, which the PM must answer to the best of his ability. These questions are normally provided by the Leader of the Opposition's staff, who will have spent the week diligently researching and identifying gaps and weaknesses in Government policy. This will give their boss well-researched lines of attack, assuming they do their job properly.

Of course, because such questions tend to be highly focused and require extremely specific answers, the PM's office is usually furnished with the questions in advance, to allow them to brief their man. Otherwise, the answers would be a bit dull: 'I don't have the figures to hand, but I will happily write to the Right Honourable gentleman in reply' is normally the place-holder response.

El Corbyno has opted to drop this tried-and-tested approach and go for asking questions from the general public. He crowd-sourced his questions, chose his favourites and put them to the PM one by one. This did have the advantage of taking the bruising impact off Cameron's responses, but gave Cameron another wonderful advantage: he didn't have to be specific. None of the questions highlighted particular failings in Government policy - they were just low-level, broad-brush scrutiny. Cameron's response to was reply simply and effectively and then to re-state Conservative policy.

In other words, Corbyn turned PMQs from a bunfight where the PM could potentially by defeated into a cool, calm platform for the PM to wax lyrical about how fucking wonderful his policies are. If he's pinning his hopes of victory on this reform, I think he's barking up the wrong tree.

2. Not Asking Questions Himself
Although he hasn't yet tried it, Corbyn has implied that he might not always do the asking himself, but cycle it through the Shadow Cabinet. This is another attempt to throw Cameron off - he's very good at playing the man rather than the ball, ridiculing his opponent to discredit the question. Definitely not cricket rules, but it has the advantage of working in modern politics, where personalities are as important as the actual policies. The idea is that, if Cameron doesn't know exactly who he's facing, it's harder for him to tailor his answers to combat the questioner.

However, it hands Cameron another advantage. If it's not Corbyn himself who stands at the Dispatch Box, then Cameron can easily portray them as a proxy or a lackey. Someone unimportant, someone irrelevant. 'This is how the Leader of the Opposition values parliamentary democracy - he sends an errand boy to do his job!' You can imagine it now. Or even nastier: 'the question put by the Honourable Member is important, and I will answer it. I feel that it is a shame that it couldn't be put by the Leader of the Opposition, who is too cowardly to face me in the Chamber!'

It would make Corbyn look weak and cowardly, and the Shadow Cabinet look irrelevant and unimportant. Again, not really a strategy I'd pin hopes on.

If you're the Leader of the Opposition, a big part of your job is convincing the general public that you'd do a better job of being Prime Minister than the other guy (or girl). The only way to do that is to personally show that the current PM's not up to it and that you won't back away from a fight if it comes to it. PMQs is pretty much the only bit of Parliamentary proceedings that normal people are actually aware of - it's the Leader of the Opposition's main chance for taking the fight to the PM. Corbyn is setting out to give Cameron a really easy time of it, which suits Cameron just fine.

Just like the rest of Corbyn's leadership suits him just fine.