PMQs verdict: Cameron trials his ultimate Corbyn attack
For the first time, we got a glimpse of that much-discussed Tory strategy to make the most of Jeremy Corbyn's time as leader. David Cameron said the message from the Corbyn camp didn't just reflect one man. It was about the whole of the Labour party.
The tactic whereby the Tories use Corbyn as a means of painting the whole Labour party as an unelectable Communist lunatic asylum has begun in earnest. Of course, the fact this tactic is so well understood is part of what makes it functionally dangerous. The Tories did not sit in a locked room discussing it. They briefed it endlessly to the press.
The strategy is public because it foments division within Labour. It puts the fear in anti-Corbyn Labour MPs, which is pretty much all of them. It's smart. It's quite similar to the approach of Putin strategist Vladimir Surkov, who made his strategies public as a way of further confusing and disorientating political enemies.
On the face of it, this was a typical Corbyn/Cameron PMQs, a session where Corbyn has usually thrived. As usual, the Labour leader dealt with real people and real arguments. The prime minister replied mostly with disconnected stats and copy-and-paste rhetoric.
Corbyn raised the removal of maintenance grants for poor students, smuggled away by the Tory government, and compared it to the pre-election pledge not to cut tax credits. He showed how hard it would be for one student who expected to start his career with £50,000 debt and a salary of half that amount. He raised a compelling example of a mental health nurse who needed a bursary to study while being a single mum to her child. He even managed to twist the prime minister's rhetorical commitment to "aspiration" and ask why he wouldn’t support hers.
And Corbyn was, as ever, funny and charming. He is painted a demon by the press, but in the Commons he does a good impression of amiability and very human irritation. He smiled and said "nice welcome" as Tory MPs loudly mocked his arrival. He delivered his tried-and-tested weaponised side-eye a few moments later to another gale of mocking laughter and he asked: "Are you done?"
Whatever his faults, Corbyn always appears human in these sessions, while Cameron is the consummate politician. That is something Corbyn could, eventually, be able to turn to his advantage.
But Cameron's responses were noticeably improved since previous sessions. He made the beginnings of an argument – that by removing financial support to the poorest you can maximise the overall number able to go to university. It wasn't fully fleshed out, but it was at least there, rather than just the standard rhetorical sleights of hand and lame party political jokes to which we're accustomed.
And yet Cameron didn’t win because he out-argued Corbyn or because his constant evasion and cheap jokes have become any more effective. He did it because the sheer weight of political advantage he is offered is so great that any individual performance is unable to lift it. The number of targets he has is almost laughable. In this session alone there was the support for Russia, the idea of sending out Trident with no nukes, the failure to support the Falkland Islanders, the cost of the opposition's university policy and, of course, the general state of disarray in the Labour party. There are almost certainly more I can't remember. It doesn’t help that the Labour benches sit looking ahead in harrowed, stony silence, like someone in mourning.
Corbyn's odd understated charm and lack of artifice might reflect well on him next to Cameron's patently stage-managed manner, but that requires him to be fighting on issues on which he is at least sometimes on the right side of public opinion.
There are plenty of them. The idea he raised recently of banning shareholder dividends for firms not paying the living wage is an idea that could resonate with the public. But while the political conversation is about Labour's organisational collapse and issues like the Falklands, Corbyn's presentational advantages are irrelevant.
Cameron wins by default, as if he's riding a wave.