Three times. Three times Jeremy Corbyn began his first sentence of PMQs today before he was able to finish it.
It wasn’t even a divisive sentence. All he was doing was echoing David Cameron’s remarks about Remembrance Sunday. But when he stands up to speak, the Tory MPs jeer. And when the Tory MPs jeer, he refuses to speak.
And they hate it. It sends them apoplectic. I sat in the corner of the gallery, behind the Labour benches, with a full view of the Conservative MPs, and it sends them into frenzied rage. They see Corbyn as a sanctimonious old windbag, and they loathe the slightly pompous teacherly manner with which he awaits their silence.
But they should learn to take a deep breath, and bottle their irritation, because their manic ejaculations from the backbenches do them no favours. It is unsightly.
It seems, however, that in the age-old traditions of Parliament, a roaring rabble of supporters behind you indicates success – which is perhaps why, as the Staggers’ Stephen Bush reports, Labour whips are encouraging MPs to be more vocal. It certainly boosts Cameron’s confidence; his answer to the opening question today, Corbyn’s seventh in a row on tax credits, left him grinning and chortling as he sat down. His final line there, “How this fits in with the new politics, I’m not quite sure!” is unlikely to enter the lexicon of memorable parliamentary quips – and how he thought it was so amusing, I’m not quite sure.
Perhaps I am not the best judge of Cameron’s jokes though. I admit that the following, in response to a question about the possibility of another NHS winter crisis, was lost on me first time around:
“If he wants to know who is heading for a winter crisis, I would predict that it’s the Labour Party that is heading for a winter crisis. Look at his appointments: his media appointment is a Stalinist, his new policy adviser is a Trotskyist, and his economic adviser is a communist. If he’s trying to move the Labour Party to the left, I’d give him full Marx!”
Loathe be it for me to suggest that the punchline indicates the PM had that one up his sleeve in case of a question about testing for seven year olds, and decided it was so good he would shoehorn it into an answer about the NHS instead.
Ponder that for a moment: David Cameron looked at that joke, and thought it was so good, so witty and so brilliantly scathing, that he didn’t even want to wait for an opportunity in which it would make sense for him to use it.
Corbyn stuck to a similar style as usual, understated and unambitious, and his performance gets him through the the exchange relatively unscathed. There was a little more sense of the bigger picture in some of his questions today – one on tax credits came from an army veteran, which cleverly allows him to side with the soldier in attacking Cameron.
It was also a smart move, on balance, not to devote all six questions to tax credits as some suggested afterwards. Cameron’s position on whether he will answer the question is clear (he won’t yet) and it would have been a waste not to pressure him on other topics.
At the moment, Corbyn’s turns at the despatch box are unexceptional, and Cameron’s are dire.