Verdict: At PMQs, substance alone never beats style

November 21, 2012 1:04 pm

David Cameron won this subdued PMQs. Of that there is no doubt. That’s not because this was an outstanding performance from the PM (it wasn’t) or a particularly poor performance from Miliband (it wasn’t), but because, purely and simply, at PMQs, style will always beat substance.

Always. Always. Always.

And that’s something I’m not convinced Ed Miliband and his team have ever completely taken on board. His substance has always been perfectly good (well researched, rigorous), but it has only been in the last 7/8 months when the style caught up with the substance – more calm, confident, sometimes almost brash – that he was widely considered to be “winning” at PMQs. A looser, more relaxed and less forced Ed Milibnd was consistently getting the better of the PM each Wednesday. Yet today some of tw old habits crept back in. A shoehorned joke here, a needless repetition there.

Where had the style gone? This substance couldn’t win on its own…

Of course, some of you will lament such an interpretation of the PMQs bearpit. Politics should be about high principles, string arguments and a comprehensive marshalling of facts, you will argue. In an ideal world that would be true. If you ever find that ideal world, call me – I’d love to see it.

But PMQs has never been about any of that worthy but necessary stuff. PMQs is about confidence, élan, wit and insouciance. (And other words that sound better in French.)

And today, with a couple of well turned phrases and an appropriately timed sneer, Cameron won the day. No matter that his answers weren’t answers, or that the NHS is a mess. Style beat substance. Convincingly. With a zinger to finish. No comebacks.

In fairness to Miliband, part of his difficulty today was that he seems to find it tough to “change gear” at PMQs. Three somber statesmanlike questions on the Middle East followed by three barbed attacks on the government is a tough volte face for anyone of a moderate disposition to complete convincingly. Yet the PM has no such difficulty, switching effortlessly from agreeing with the honourable gentleman to tearing him to pieces with a pre conceived assault. Whether part of his personality or an acquired skill, it’s a powerful weapon for a political chameleon to have in his armoury.

In contrast, Miliband finds it hard to change gear like that. It may make him a well adjusted human being, but it makes winning set piece jousting sessions like today much harder.

That’s something that Ed needs to come to terms with and learn from. Because at PMQs substance alone never beats a style.

Never. Never. Never.

And after getting used to seeing Miliband trounce Cameron with regularity, I’d like to see that again. With style.

  • charliebeckett

    So if style always beats substance why does PMQ get so much attention? It gets a lot more than it used to, btw.

  • http://twitter.com/Ceilidhann Kayleigh Anne

    I get that PMQs exists to rally confidence in the Commons troops, so to speak, and I still don’t know a single non politics geek person who actually watches it, but there’s something so incredibly depressing in jokes getting more attention than policy.

    In lighter news, Cameron’s hair’s getting more interesting as time passes.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Homfray/510980099 Mike Homfray

    That says what is wrong with PMQ and politics more broadly. It needs changing. I don’t think that Ed will ever beat a PR man like Cameron on ‘style’, but I also think people are a bit sick of snake oil salesmen running politics

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