Columbo or conduit – Has Jeremy Corbyn’s new approach to PMQs been effective?

Written by Tom Freeman on 16 September 2015 in Comment

Suggestions David Cameron had a comfortable time at Prime Minister's Questions may be premature

Labour’s new leader Jeremy Corbyn used his first appearance at Prime Minister’s Questions to attempt to make the occasion less “theatrical”.

By using questions emailed to him from members of the public, Corbyn successfully gave the debate gravitas, and MPs muted their bellowing to hear both questions and answers.

What it did do was put the Prime Minister in a situation where he couldn’t go on the attack without appearing to attack the concerns of voters, so the focus of the session became about housing, employment and mental health, instead of whether or not the leader of the opposition should sing the national anthem, or wear a suit that fits him.


First signs of Labour dissent during Corbyn’s first week as leader

Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet in full

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However by sticking to the questions of others, some Labour MPs may have felt their leader left David Cameron a little comfortable in putting out government lines. By failing to stick the boot in, was Corbyn appearing more like a conduit for the concerns of the people, rather than a leader holding power to account?

“That approach doesn’t actually put the PM under a great deal of pressure,” said former front bencher Toby Perkins.

A former adviser to Gordon Brown and Tony Blair had this to say:



When you examine Cameron’s seemingly smooth responses however, there were indications the ordeal did make him nervous. Grilled on housing, he said: “It’s vital though that we reform housing associations and make sure they are more efficient. Frankly they are a part of the public sector that hasn’t been through efficiencies and haven’t improved their performance and I think it’s about time that they did.”

Of course, housing associations aren’t public sector at all, they’re social enterprises. That’s the entire point.

Ruth Davison, Director of Policy and External Affairs at the National Housing Federation in England, said: “Housing associations are emphatically not part of the public sector – they are the most successful partnership between state and private enterprise in the UK’s history, having brought £76bn in private investment to the table over the past 30 years.”

An odd target for the PM then.

And when asked about stigma and the scale of cuts to mental health services, Cameron said: “let’s change public attitude to mental health, but we won’t be able to do that without a strong economy.” The economy first line was well-rehearsed, and used several times, but given Corbyn’s mention of suicides and that the question was about someone’s direct experience of cuts, could be seen as a little insensitive.

There was hint of the killer from an episode of Columbo about David Cameron. Under questioning from a quiet, seemingly rambling man in an ill-fitting suit, he fought to appear calm and in control. However unlike Columbo, Corbyn didn’t quite use the substance of what Cameron said against him.

Next week we may yet get a “just one more thing” moment.


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