PMQs: Corbyn changes the conversation

A good start, but the new leader’s fundamental problems were clear to see

It is my confident prediction that more people watched this afternoon’s PMQs than ever before. Compared to the usual, mostly ignored, often derided piece of theatre, Jeremy Corbyn’s debut was genuinely a hot topic of conversation this morning.

People from outside the political class, who would never usually consider giving half an hour of their day to watch Parliament, were fascinated to see this outsider politician they’ve read and heard so much about in recent weeks. A man portrayed relentlessly by Conservatives as a ‘threat to national security’, who had inspired 300,000 people to join the Labour Party, yet remained viscerally unpopular with dozens of his own MPs. A man with the lowest expenses claims of any MP. A man who doesn’t sing the national anthem!

Americans will understand the phenomenon with regard to Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Outsiders are all the rage these days, with the popularity of professional politicians and the old ways of doing business at an all-time low.

Having already won his party’s nomination, Corbyn now has to deliver. The purpose of an outsider is to change the game and, without jumping to premature conclusions, he may just have changed it in one small respect.

Corbyn’s leadership campaign stressed his unwillingness to get into personality politics or trade insults. Much of his popularity stemmed from being a straight-talking, authentic, polite human being. He promised a new ‘Peoples Question Time’ in which he would pose questions from the general public directly to the PM, and that’s exactly what he did.

Cameron welcomed this plan for a polite, serious debate and duly answered, without trading insults or trying to score overt political points. It was nothing like previous PMQs, and everyone on the BBC’s panel were really enthusiastic about the new tone. After weeks of constantly brutal media coverage and a morning dominated by the national anthem row, Corbyn will be pleased he managed to change the subject into something positive.

Once the leaders’ exchange was over, however, the parties reverted to type and this later spell explains why so many believe Corbyn is unelectable. First a Tory question about renewing Trident offered Cameron the chance to contrast his enthusiasm for it with Corbyn’s opposition to nuclear weapons, thus reinforcing his ‘threat to national security’ spin.

Another question from the DUP’s Nigel Dodds will have made Labour supporters wince, condemning their new Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s call 13 years ago for IRA members to be ‘honoured’. Like Corbyn’s various foreign policy musings over a long career, these charges will be repeated ad nauseum in the years ahead.

In these ‘security’ areas at least, there are only votes to be lost and it very much remains to be seen whether Corbyn can survive as Labour leader until the next election in 2020. I’m already on the case, looking for value bets to replace him and will be offering some names very soon!

Follow me on Twitter @paulmotty

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