Jeremy Corbyn had his tie up done up, yet his suit may still have fallen below the high standards expected of David Cameron’s mother. And while the Prime Minister retains a “Flashman” nickname, the Labour leader’s reputation is anything but flash.
We see these contending elements in the two men every week at PMQs: Corbyn does not treat it as a kind of parlour game, which Cameron so often appears to do. The latter has honed his technique, showing concern where necessary, while still trotting out banal but important-sounding statements. His response to a question from Labour MP Neil Coyle on knife deaths today was a model of the genre.
Corbyn, meanwhile, litters his questions with statistics, quotes from reports, and shows of empathy for victims of the Government’s policies. Too often, this makes his point difficult to follow, and reduces his power to stand up and say Cameron has failed to answer the question – even if he hasn’t, many looking on are not even sure what the question was.
This is typical of Corbyn; it is just how he speaks. To phrase questions in a way that feels most natural to him makes sense.
However, his opening question today showed his own voice, too, can be effective. It was one of the shortest I’ve seen him ask in the Chamber. Standing up, he simply said: “It’s three years since the Government announced a policy of tax-free childcare. Could the Prime Minister tell us what the hold up is?”
He looked confident and didn’t allow the Tory backbenchers the opportunity to drown him out with their jeers. For all we may think that the Conservatives’ braying reflects badly on them, there is a fear that Corbyn’s inability to control the Chamber makes him look weak, with efforts made to avoid the wall of noise. Pithy, pointed questions can help with that.
The rest of today’s exchange was business as usual. Corbyn had two broad themes, childcare and education, and jumped from topic to topic within them without ever really pinning Cameron down. The Prime Minister, for his part, seemed to only vaguely address what was mentioned in the questions and eagerly shoehorned in a weak putdown about Yanis Varoufakis. Both Cameron and Corbyn seemed comfortable in their weekly roles and neither rocked the boat.
But Cameron looked complacent. He may well be more concerned with the dramas in his own party than the threat of the Opposition. But, regardless of the quality of his suit and tie, it would only take one very good performance from Corbyn for him to be knocked off his stride.