PMQs: The Challenge for Corbyn

Tomorrow (Wednesday) at 12noon sees the return of a fixture that some hate to miss. It’s Prime Minister’s Question Time (PMQs). While to some this may appear to be people just shouting at each other, PMQs serves a useful purpose. It is one of the ways in which the Prime Minister and the government are accountable to the House of Commons. For this to happen, the Leader of the Opposition must be capable of effectively challenging the Prime Minister. Unfortunately, Jeremy Corbyn’s performances so far indicate that he appears incapable of performing this task. Failure to place the Prime Minister on the spot means that the government is under less scrutiny, and accountability and Parliament suffers. If the Opposition, in general, does not fulfil their role to scrutinise the government, then the government is likely to make mistakes. With Brexit, this becomes even more important.

There is no way to wrap this up; Corbyn’s performances at PMQs have been shockingly bad. David Cameron visibly found PMQs a far more comfortable experience when facing Corbyn compared to Ed Milliband, often not even needing to refer to his briefing notes. Corbyn’s questions are often little more than a ramble (Isabel Hardman at The Spectator picked up on this here), and his frequent failure to follow up on the Prime Minister’s answer makes PMQs considerably easier for them. Corbyn’s approach of asking questions sent to him can neutralise PMQs to some extent, but he needs to follow up on the answers.

Using PMQs to their full extent requires research, time and preparation. The indications from the VICE documentary on Corbyn are that his preparations are far from extensive, and it shows. Perhaps Corbyn has chosen not to take PMQs seriously, viewing it merely being pointless theatrics. But this highlights Corbyn’s fundamental constitutional misunderstanding. Despite all the rallies held up and down the country and for all the train floors he sits on, Corbyn needs to show that he is the leader of a viable alternative government. One key element of this is to perform well in the Commons, especially at PMQs, which is Corbyn’s weekly opportunity to set the terms of the debate rather than just responding to what the government has decided. Corbyn’s performances in Parliament (as well as his general performance as leader) have led to what support he had amongst the parliamentary party diminishing and ultimately to the current leadership election. Had Corbyn been consistently performing better at PMQs, more Labour MPs would have given him more of chance. Both Blair and Cameron were excellent performers at PMQs, and they both won elections. A series of poor performances leads MPs to question whether their leader is up to the job. Although she performed strongly at her first PMQs in July, there is a warning to Theresa May here as well.

Although little may change directly as a result of PMQs, in the background, PMQs matters to both party leaders. It remains their most visible shop window to the voters week in, week out. With Theresa May now answering the questions, there is a chance for Corbyn to reset how he approaches PMQs. Although in July, there was every indication that May intends to take advantage of every possible weakness Corbyn has, piling the pressure on Corbyn. Even if Corbyn does win the leadership election, he needs to take PMQs seriously as he cannot function as Leader of the Opposition without the support of his MPs in Parliament. In short, Corbyn needs to give them something to support. Otherwise, Labour’s leadership question will still lack a conclusive answer.

It was arguably one of Corbyn’s best PMQs (although that may not be saying too much). But he did focus on one issue, which is more powerful. Housing is a significant concern and plays well with his supporters. His questions need to be more precise, and Theresa May could handle them with ease. 

The problem is whether this was the right issue to go on as such little progress over Brexit has been made. Here it was left to the leader of the SNP, Angus Robertson to challenge May over the key issue of the day, directly asking whether May wants to retain access to the Single Market. This is a consistent theme of PMQs as Robertson routinely is more challenging with his two questions than Corbyn ever is with his six.

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