An unexpected Leader of the Opposition
When the Speaker called on Jeremy Corbyn, as Leader of the Opposition, at Prime Minister’s Question Time (PMQ), it was the first time in 30 years in the Commons that the veteran left-winger had spoken at the Dispatch Box. Unlike the three rival candidates he had defeated so conclusively in Labour’s leadership election, he had never been a minister or shadow minister still less sat in Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet.
He was facing a Conservative Leader who had been one of the main players in PMQs for a decade and who had coached previous Tory Leaders on how to handle it for years before that. Things were about to change, Labour’s new leader wanted a different kind of PMQs, led by the concerns of the public – and he received 40,000 replies when he asked people to email him with their questions for David Cameron.
‘I have taken part in many events around the country and had conversations with many people about what they thought of this place, our Parliament, our democracy and our conduct within this place,’ he explained. ‘Many told me that they thought Prime Minister’s QuestionTime was too theatrical… and that they wanted things done differently but above all they wanted their voice to be heard in Parliament.’
The result was something quite different, dominated by bread- and-butter issues but with little of the familiar professional political fencing – at least at first. The opening question was from a woman called Marie who wanted to know what the Government intend to do about the ‘chronic lack of affordable housing and the extortionate rents charged by some private sector landlords’.
David Cameron observed parliamentary protocol and congratulated Mr Corbyn on his resounding leadership election victory and he welcomed the idea of a new style at PMQs. He agreed more affordable housing was needed but added that the record of the Governments he had led was better than that of the previous Labour Government.
Mr Corbyn followed up with questions from Steven, on social rents and from Paul and Claire, on cuts to tax credits– a subject raised in a thousand of his emails – that he warned would cost families up to £1,300 per year and was ‘absolutely shameful,’ he said. The strategy was to continue; by his hundredth question, in March 2016, he had asked about health issues in 25 of them, welfare in 24, housing in 16 and education in five; it was a far less Westminster-centric approach.
Those first exchanges were courteous and careful as the two circled one another. It was left to the leaders of two of the smaller parties in the Commons to insert a couple of barbs. The first came from the SNP’s Westminster Leader, Angus Robertson, who said he was looking forward to working with the new Labour Leader to oppose Tory austerity and fight against renewal of the Trident nuclear missile submarines – a highly divisive issue among Labour MPs, most of whom do not share their leader’s unilateralist views.
Then, the Leader of the DUP at Westminster, Nigel Dodds, raised Mr Corbyn’s key appointment to Labour’s front bench team, his veteran left-wing ally, John McDonnell, as Shadow Chancellor. Mr Dodds pointed to the plaques by the entrance to the Chamber in memory of Airey Neave, Robert Bradford, Ian Gow and Sir Anthony Berry – MPs murdered by terrorists. He added ‘The Opposition Leader has appointed a Shadow Chancellor who believes that terrorists should be honoured for their bravery. Will the Prime Minister join all of us, from all parts of this House, in denouncing that sentiment and standing with us on behalf of the innocent victims and for the bravery of our armed forces who stood against the terrorists?
That produced loud “Hear, hears’ and the Prime Minister replied that Mr Dodds had spoken for the vast majority of people in Britain. ‘My view is simple, the terrorism we faced was wrong… The death and the killing was wrong. It was never justified and people who seek to justify it should be ashamed of themselves.’
That flash of steel was a harbinger of the Prime Minister’s increasingly dismissive treatment of the Labour Leader in later PMQs – culminating in his advice to Mr Corbyn to ‘put on a decent suit’.