Jeremy Corbyn’s First Ever PMQs Was a Grim, Strange Spectacle

It was like a weird radio-phone in show where David Cameron got to dole out distortions and half-truths.

by Sam Kriss
16 September 2015, 2:25pm

Screengrab from the BBC

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Jeremy Corbyn has been in Parliament for over three decades – longer than the Prime Minister has been able to vote – and he thinks it's time that some dignity was brought back to its proceedings. He wants to build a different kind of Prime Minister's Questions. Less braying, less sniping, less news bulletin-friendly soundbites, less "yah-boo sucks theatrical politics", less of the atmosphere of a circus temporarily taken over by the animals: instead, a respectful and rational democratic institution, where those in power can be held to account by the people they rule over. Anyone expecting their flat-capped messiah to spit proletarian venom at the massed ranks of Tory pricks will have to be disappointed. Politics is getting serious.

Given that the Mother of All Parliaments is and always has been a slightly pongy sixth-form common room for public school boys who never grew up, this would always be a pretty hefty task. But how are you meant to have a sane and rational discussion when standing opposite you, in the place reserved for the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, is some vile apparition with a head like a giant floating lollipop?

The end result of Corbyn's first big parliamentary combat is a grim and strange spectacle: less a surging Titanomachy, more an ordinary man with the demeanour of a disappointed schoolteacher trying to reason against a creature out of the weirdest forgotten corners of ancient mythology. David Cameron, spray-tanned, floppy-haired and hooting, the posh thuds of his flattened vowels echoing in ripples of condescension across the chamber, looks properly monstrous, something made of sand or putty – and, like any monster, he doesn't seem to exist in the real world.

Corbyn's big innovation has been to outsource his questions for the Prime Minister to the population at large. He's received 40,000 emails from across the country, suggesting various problems he could raise, and in his hands PMQs turns into a kind of grandiloquent phone-in radio show: here's Marie, with a question about the housing crisis and extortionate rents, next there's Paul, who's upset about the removal of tax credits from the poorest families.

On the face of it, it's a clever strategy: it limits Cameron's ability to deliver some snarky debating-chamber put-down to the usual simian hoots from the Tory benches; instead, he has to treat Corbyn's questions with the same nodding deference that all politicians must now display, even when faced with the absolute worst idiots of the British public. For someone whose every move is picked over by a frenzied and spittle-flecked media class (Jeremy Corbyn picked up some sandwiches! Traitor! Jeremy Corbyn didn't match his jacket with his trousers! Bolshevik!), whose first PMQs were bound to be the subject of intense and bizarre scrutiny, it's a very good damage limitation strategy. But it's not much more.

To give the man his due, Cameron answered every question capably and confidently. In fact, he made a decent stab at out-socialisting the arch-socialist across from him. Housing crisis? In fact, the Tories delivered 260,000 affordable housing units over the last Parliament. (Never mind that the cost of an "affordable" home in London is roughly the same as you'd need to fund the overthrow of a small Third World democracy.) Concerns about mental health provision? His government is putting an extra £8 billion into the NHS. (Adroitly tiptoeing over the fact that mental health services have been cut by 8 percent since 2010.) With his selective statistics, Cameron seems to be living in a very different world to the real one, where people are actually suffering, but like all fantasy worlds, it has a lot more coherence than reality.

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But Corbyn never presses him on any of this: he asks a question, Cameron smugly disgorges a little glob of distortions and half-truths, and then Corbyn asks another. It's all very admirably restrained and serious, even statesmanlike, but it's not really doing anything. Is he really trying to convince the Tories to do more about housing and mental health, as if their assaults on these services were an unexpected cockup rather than the fruition of an ideological agenda?

A mature, sensible PMQs is a fine idea, but it misses the point of what PMQs – and Parliament itself – are really about. As a good Marxist, Corbyn should know that the organs of our representative democracy are really just a vast sideshow to the real exercise of political power, which comes from our financial overlords, and, sometimes, an empowered working class. It's just a vehicle for propaganda, and treating it as anything else doesn't do anyone any favours. There's no point trying to make PMQs into less of a circus: however you arrange the props, however seriously you talk to the audience, it's all still taking place in a big stripy tent, and the caged elephants are still shitting all over the sawdust.

Once Corbyn sits back down, the theatrical farce clanks back into gear. Andrew Turner, the Tory MP for the Isle of Wight, has a very important question about a tiger that the island's zoo is trying to import from a circus in Belgium. The chamber, which had been unusually hushed, breaks out into a low, buzzing drone of chatting and coughing: our highest democratic institution suddenly sounds like a swarm of flies. Someone shouts that they want to hear more about the tiger. MPs bleat goatishly from slack, grinning lips. This is what they came here for; this is why they're in politics. They want to hear more about the tiger, and then they want a glass of milk, and someone to tuck them into bed. "I too want to hear about the tiger," says David Cameron. He goes on to mention that there's a rhino at Cotswolds Wildlife Park named after his daughter. None of these animals will ever escape their circus.

And on it goes. There's some old-fashioned sparring between the Prime Minister and the SNP, and then Tom Pursglove, a wilting beansprout that has somehow managed to become the Conservative MP for Corby, remarks that "the Prime Minister has a lot to be pleased with Corby for – and that's Corby, not Corbyn." There's a ripple of forced laughter, as if this were actually a joke rather than a total indictment of an education system that can no longer even produce a minimum level of wit among its insufferable poshos. Apparently, the world has Corby to thank for inventing the DVD case. Not the DVD itself, the box it comes in. Cameron replies that he is indeed "feeling a bit of Corby-mania." A recent poll in America revealed that almost a third of the country would support a military coup. Maybe they're on to something.