We saw the first instalment of Corbyn v Cameron in the Commons yesterday. The right-wing press likened Corbyn’s “consensual” approach, crowd sourcing the questions, to reducing Prime Minister’s Questions to a phone-in radio programme. A lot of the left-wing press engaged in the “oh didn’t he do ever so well” thing so reminiscent of the Ed Miliband era; a sort of talking him up in a patronising tone vibe.
So here’s my verdict: no one came over terribly badly yesterday. Which, if that’s what Corbyn was going for on his first time out, well done. There could have been worse results given the rocky start he’s had as leader. But I think an important question needs to be asked if we are to evaluate Corbyn in the Commons going forward: what are PMQs actually for? Why do we engage in the ritual?
We always hear from the commentariat about how much people don’t like what goes on at Prime Minister’s Questions; how it represents “Punch and Judy politics”. But the purpose of PMQs is straightforward and can be easily summarised: it is so that the opposition can hold the government to account. Every Wednesday that parliament is in session, the prime minister of the country has to answer six questions of the leader of the opposition’s choosing. And whatever the drawbacks of the format, I think this is a great thing.
No politician in an opposing party gets to ask the President of the United States six questions every week. Instead of moaning about it, I think we should be glad we live in a country where this kind of scrutiny is a matter of unwritten constitutional principle. Anyhow, let’s look at Corbyn’s approach of taking questions from the general public and see how well it does in light of this definition of what PMQs are there for.
For a start, the leader of the opposition has loads of advantages that a member of the public does not have. He/she will know the government’s programme in great detail and if there are any problems with any portion of it, will have the facts and figures to argue why and how it is a bad idea. No member of the public is going to have this to hand. So however relevant their questions might be generally, in terms of holding the government to account they will just never be at the vantage point the leader of the opposition will be. Also, the format will get tiresome for everyone, including the public.
Secondly, one of the most important aspects of PMQs is the follow up. You ask the prime minister a question and he tries to use circumlocution to dodge it. So you ask him/her the same question in a slightly different way (or even the same way, Paxman style). If the government has done something really wrong, it is hard to dodge the question six times.
Corbyn’s format doesn’t allow this. It’s one question and then another on a complete different topic, repeat. We saw how much this is going to worry Cameron yesterday: not at all. He can just play each question with a straight bat, knowing there will be no follow up question, the biggest problem to navigate being the need to remember the name of the member of public’s name correctly. The whole thing plays to Cameron’s strengths: a former PR man with ten years experience at PMQs on either side of the box, facing generalist questions that will inevitably not be about the thing Cameron wants to talk about the very least are going to suit him brilliantly. If PMQs becomes a dull spectacle, no one benefits more than David Cameron.
So I rephrase the question: is Jeremy Corbyn going to be able to hold the government to account? On the basis of yesterday, I fear not.