Red Portcullis reports from inside Westminster on Corbyn’s first Prime Ministers Questions as Labour leader
I just managed to get squeezed in by one of the door staff (it really does pay to be friendly to staff and share a pint with them) to what was probably one of the most eagerly awaited, though probably anti-climatic, PMQs ever. My impression of the chamber waiting in anticipation was how little (in fact zero) reaction there was from the Labour benches. A kind of hush descended, in contrast to the Prime Minister’s fanfared entrance to the sound of cheering Tory foxhunting backbenchers licking their lips in excited anticipation of a quick kill.
They were soon to be disappointed as the Red Fox simply refused to run, but instead asked a load of pertinent questions. As leader JC was noticeable by the much better fitting, light brown suit and tie he was wearing – no corduroys in sight. But the total silence as JC took his seat, even from those who do support him, indicates that this must have been decided in advance. Meanwhile Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, who was not sat on the front bench had in fact marshalled the troops, giving up his own seat for one of the record 16 out of 31 women in Labour’s Shadow Cabinet. McDonnell may have been out of sight, but he was not to be out of mind as events later proved.
Corbyn flanked by Angela Eagle and Tom Watson took to his feet with assured – “I dont give a shit” style that must come with maturity, and 30 years of opposing your own front bench over 500 times on questions of principle. But there was no fuss no fanfare, just straight-talking honest politics – no fake idolatry or hero worshipping happy-clappy entrances. That’s just not how JC rolls.
The questions that followed were a master-stroke of understatedness. He thanked the cast of hundreds of thousands who had waged the democratic grassroots revolution in the Labour Party that delivered him to face Cameron at PMQs. He was respectful, courteous but searing in his moral standpoint in defence of the working poor and those on benefits. Indeed he made a virtue of being their voice in parliament and all his six questions came from the 40,000 suggestions that had been emailed to him. Emailers, ‘Angela’, ‘Paul’, ‘Gail’, and others ordinary citizens had their questions quoted word for word on mental health, benefit sanctions, working tax credit cuts and the housing crisis calmly and with dignity.
My impression was Camoeron did not know how to handle this. He was waiting for the garbed quip, the sly witty one-liner, the trick question. But there was none. Straight questions from constituents which required straight answers, and for once PM Questions became PM Answers.
The main effect of JC’s style might be that Cameron is unable to get on his haughty vantage point. There was no room here for calling Corbyn a danger to the nation’s security – although one Tory backbencher had a go and failed. Cameron was smart enough to realise that would have made him look worse.
The biggest attack on Labour came not from the Tory benches, but from Nigel Dodds, that inveterate reactionary DUP Unionist MP. He planted one on the still out of sight John McDonnell as an apologist for IRA terrorism, which had taken the lives of four MPs. This bombast got the Tory hordes baying at last. Cameron soaked it in and reminisced how he had worked for bomb-blast victims of the IRA Ian Gow MP and remembered Airey Nieve (Thatcher’s confident) who had been Cameron’s MP as a kid.
All in all, if you had expected fireworks (and clearly the crowd packing the public and press galleries, even the lords visitors benches had expected some) you will have been disappointed. The style of JC means it was inevitably going to be understated, and by being so it was probably more effective. It put Cameron a little on the defensive over his epic-fails in building enough housing, tackling poverty or funding the NHS properly to deal with mental health came into sharp focus. Jeremy Corbyn defended the interests of ordinary working people from the despatch box – there is no no doubt where Labour’s leader stands.
SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson welcomed Corbyn to the front bench and held out the prospect of closer joint working between SNP and Labour benches to stop Trident renewal. This was received with sceptical but genteel groans from several backbench Labour MPs but no reaction at all from Corbyn or his team. When a Tory pointed to Trident being needed for a dangerous world there was a stonewall expression on Deputy Leader Tom Watson’s face.
Missing from it overall, I felt, was any encouragement for mass political action outside Westminster (4 October in Manchester could have been slipped in). Corbyn also did not counter Cameron’s arguments about needing the strong economy to pay for the decent public services. But that will come in time, surely, another day. Same time next Wednesday then?