PMQs verdict: Cameron squirms away from Corbyn’s housing attack
Most of PMQs was dominated by the little stuff, but what gloriously weird little stuff it was.
Corbyn came in wearing a large badge which said: "I LOVE UNIONS" (it's actually a heart symbol, but you get the idea). Personally I agree, but it was unspeakably naff.
His opening question was one from the public, sent in by someone called "Rosie", which also happens to be name of his chief whip, Rosie Winterton. She sat on the end of the front bench, laughing innocently, while Tories guffawed in a way which bore no relation to the funniness of the situation. Corbyn at first seemed baffled by the gales of laughter, then realised and made an awkward series of observations.
"This Rosie is in her 20s," he said. Winterton's smile faltered. When it returned it was more of a rictus grin. And this one, Corbyn said, didn’t have such a nice house. Winterton couldn't really hide her discomfort with that. Then Corbyn got onto what he wanted to talk about – housing.
"When you get a letter from the chief whip that usually spells trouble," Cameron replied. It was a revealing moment. More polished, funnier, but also suggestive of someone who always has his eye out for party political advantage. As ever, Cameron is more professional, Corbyn more authentic.
Rosie became a weird sort of magic word for the rest of the session. Cameron talked about "Rosies who are living in social houses". A little later he said: "Let's take this back to Rosie." Rosie wants a country with a strong economy where she can afford to buy a home, the prime minister said, without ever having met her. Rosie Rosie Rosie. Wherever she was, whoever she is, Rosie must have regretted sending in that letter.
Cameron is vulnerable on housing, but Corbyn couldn't nail a blow. It was frustrating to watch. The Labour leader's observation that the Tories had shot down a proposal for rented houses to be fit for human habitation didn't have the impact it deserved. His criticism of the Tories for not building enough houses was batted away quite easily by Cameron. Even his impassioned outburst of frustration at the conditions many have to live in did not really resonate.
Cameron used all the usual techniques. He compared his house-building record with New Labour, even though that is a completely pointless thing to do with Corbyn. He reeled off statistics specifically designed to counter this sort of interrogation. He did the standard professional politician thing. But he did, it must be said, wrestle directly with the issue a little more. It wasn't all bluster. Corbyn's policy-heavy approach has forced the prime minister to be a little more specific in his responses. He is still a fundamentally evasive public speaker, but less so.
If a normal member of the public had watched the session they would have been in no doubt about the dynamic. Corbyn looks like he really cares, like he genuinely is incensed by the Tory failure to do anything about the housing crisis and the appalling conditions many renters live in. Cameron appeared the consummate politician. Instinctively, that average member of the public would probably side with Corbyn. But he probably wouldn't vote for him.
The utterly ramshackle nature of Corbyn's presentation makes him appear unreliable. But it also diminishes the points he is authentically making. The Labour leader needs to ask shorter questions, to press a point – as he did at the start of his tenure – to finish a line strongly and with emphasis to indicate control and dominance. In short, he needs to be a little more professional. Doing so would not diminish his sense of authenticity but allow it to be communicated more effectively.
And that's not just about presentation, but also topics. Why on earth Corbyn wasn't talking about the junior doctors' strike is anyone's guess. Here was a great moment to pick a strike with public sympathy, on the health service no less, and get your attack on the prime minister embedded into tonight's news packages. He didn’t take it. That's just an error. That's not authenticity, it’s refusing to make the organisational decisions needed to maximise your ability to speak to the voters.
Cameron has taken a little bit of Corbyn, although he would be loath to admit it. If Corbyn could take a little of what Cameron's offering, he would be a more formidable presence at PMQs.
PMQs data analysis by Brandwatch
9,027 UK Twitter mentions of #PMQs
60.1% negative mentions and 39.9% positive mentions
Mentions of Cameron: 29.1% positive, 70.9% negative
Mentions of Corbyn: 44.8% positive, 55.2% negative
Main topics mentioned include:
Housing – 1,777 mentions
David Cameron's mum – 326 mentions
Jeremy Corbyn's badge – 478 mentions
Junior Doctors Strike – 347
Most popular tweets of the day:
— HuffPost UK Comedy (@HuffPostUKCom) February 10, 2016
Cameron says you can only build houses if you build a strong economy – the truth is the Tories have done neither #PMQs
— Liam Young (@liamyoung) February 10, 2016
Cameron kidding himself if he thinks Britain has a strong economy. If only. Bank of England cut growth forecast #pmqs
— Kevin Maguire (@Kevin_Maguire) February 10, 2016
— TechnicallyRon (@TechnicallyRon) February 10, 2016