No blood in the water as Jeremy Corbyn emerges unscathed from PMQs

New Labour leader's novel approach to questions took the sting out of David Cameron's tail
New Labour leader's novel approach to questions took the sting out of David Cameron's tail

Today's prime minister's questions had all the makings an unmitigated disaster for Labour's new leader. He began his day accused of offending the nation by refusing to sing the national anthem, while one of his own aides had been accused of assaulting a journalist. Meanwhile the nation's press had moved onto its fifth solid day of negative headlines about his leadership. If this was supposed to be Jeremy Corbyn's honeymoon, then he'd be forgiven for wanting to annul the wedding. 

As a result, Corbyn's arrival in the Commons was greeted with an almighty cheer from the Tory benches. While in the past, newly elected leaders might have expected a heroes' welcome at their first PMQs, Corbyn's arrival was met with just two order papers waved from the Labour benches. Behind Corbyn, his MPs' faces were locked in what can most generously be described as a state of grim expectation. Standing at the side, an impish looking Grant Shapps grinned manically. Above them all, a pit of sharks circled in the press gallery.

But if there was a scent of blood in the water, it did not come from Corbyn. As the new Labour leader began it was clear that this was going to be a very different style of PMQs to any we had seen before. The press had already been briefed that Corbyn intended to ask questions that had been crowdsourced from his supporters. But what we didn't know was quite how effective this approach would be.

David Cameron's style at the despatch box famously resembles that of the school bully. While publicly bemoaning the tone of these sessions, the prime minister has in reality always felt perfectly at home with them. Ed Miliband's best moments at prime minister's questions came when he managed to pin down Cameron on single issues. Whenever he tried to muster anger or hurl insults at the prime minister, he inevitably came off worse. In a battle of the bullies, the prime minister is always going to come out on top.

Corbyn is even less suited to such aggressive battles. He is not a naturally impressive speaker or debater. His appeal, such as it is, comes from his mild-mannered style and use of plain English. Today he wisely decided to stick to that strength.

And by channelling questions from 'Marie', 'Paul', 'Stephen' and others, the Labour leader neutralised whatever attacks Cameron had prepared against him. If Cameron had tried to condemn or patronise Corbyn, it would have looked like he was condemning or patronising the public. A cynic might suggest that Corbyn was shielding himself behind the public, but if he was, it worked.

By using this approach, Corbyn not only managed to take the sting out of Cameron's tail, but he also managed to force a change in behaviour from the prime minister. When Labour MPs started heckling, Cameron chided them.

"I thought this was the new question time," he joked. "I'm not sure the message has got through."

Similarly when Cameron himself reverted to his old bullying style in response to a question from Angus Robertson, he was told off by the SNP leader.

"Obviously this will take a bit of getting used to," admitted Cameron.

In just one session, Corbyn had changed the whole tone of PMQs.

Corbyn did not leave completely unscathed today. Yet it was telling that the biggest injuries he received came away from the Tory benches.

Robertson cleverly managed to highlight one of the major splits on the Labour benches, stating that "I hope Labour MPs will join [Corbyn] and us in opposing Trident". Meanwhile the DUP's Nigel Dodds was damning about the new shadow chancellor's previous comments about the IRA.

On neither of these issues has Corbyn yet come up with a convincing response. Until he does the sharks will keep on circling. But for now at least, Corbyn lives to swim another day.

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