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First impressions

Shortly after the BBC’s Daily Politics show’s coverage of the House of Commons’ Prime Minister’s Question Time had finished yesterday I had occasion to ring one of my brothers to discuss a subject of mutual interest. As it happens, at the time he was in the middle of a meeting with my other brother and I said – almost to offer gossip-fodder – that the reason I had called at this particular moment I had been watching Jeremy Corbyn’s debut in the weekly political joust.

“So have we” came the response.

As was perhaps inevitable, I suspect a lot of people had found time in their day to witness the new Labour leader in his first proper Commons outing in the role. To see whether he would sing The Red Flag; look nervous; get hysterical; embarrass his own MPs with his ineptitude; wilt under the pressure; take to the experience like a duck to water; land significant and telling blows upon a Prime Minister who probably also felt under pressure, not knowing what to expect; or just – having raised massive expectations on both sides of the coin (i.e. a welcome ‘revitalising new beginning’ from a Left point of view, or a self-inflicted catastrophe for the Labour Party, from a Tory perspective) – coming across as a damp squib.

Afterwards I watched the Politics Show right to its end … and I have been devouring media coverage since, including this morning’s offerings from the newspaper websites.

Thus far I can summarise reactions as follows.

By all accounts Corbyn did reasonably well in terms of his promise to change the tone of PMQs. His ‘I’m channelling some of the questions that 40,000 members of the British public sent me’ approach was certainly novel. It took up far more of the session than normal – the Leader of the Opposition has just six questions available to him and yesterday Corbyn’s took the best part of quarter of an hour.

Just as different was the response on the Government’s benches. It seemed as if everyone had been ordered to keep their powder dry – i.e. not heckle, jeer or condescend – until it could be worked out how Corbyn was going to play it.

The Prime Minister himself was respectful and tried to go along with Corbyn’s ‘new style’ of PMQs (failing once or twice by going back to the biff-bang time-honoured style of the last thirty years).

However, as several commentators have pointed out, Mr Cameron had a pretty easy time of it. It was rather as if – to use a cricketing analogy – he was a Number 5 batsman in a team with 9 wickets down and facing the last over of the day (in other words, the task at hand was simply to bat for six balls without getting out) and the opposition captain had put himself on to bowl said last over … and for some reason had opted to bowl ineffectual stuff on an unaggressive length and line just outside the off-stump. Cameron was able to leave two balls well alone and let them go straight through to the wicket-keeper – the others he simply played with a soft-handed dead bat forward defensive.

And that was that. The umpire called ‘over’, lifted the bails … and everyone walked off with the crowd left feeling slightly deflated at the players’ apparently disinterested approach.

Hundreds of Scandinavian trees have been turned into newsprint since yesterday by media political commentators and pundits. I feel I’ve read enough of it to have had my fill.

Some of it has been insightful and well-argued, a lot of it I could have replicated or anticipated in my sleep.

The one comment I’d add is that it’s worth bearing in mind that the political media are as much a part of the ‘Westminster Bubble’ as the politicians, SPADS and wonks. The ascent of Corbyn is manna from heaven for them – there’s been nothing but saturation coverage for the new Labour leader since he was announced as winner last Saturday … and inevitably it is in the media’s interest for a good story to run and run.

What ultimately matters, of course, is not what those on the inside of British national politics think or believe, but how Corbyn and Cameron come across to the ordinary member of the electorate at home.

At this stage (it seems to me) Corbyn will have delighted those who recently joined the Labour party and the Left generally. To them he will seem to be delivering on his promise to be anti-politics, or at least anti-politics as it has been in recent times. Those who are disengaged from politics but are still ‘interested’ will be encouraged.

Quite what the majority of Labour MPs – who didn’t vote for Corbyn and probably have been dismayed by recent events – will make of it is another matter. On the one hand, Corbyn is now leader and they’ve simply got to get on with it, but on the other they must be seething with resentment and concern for the electability of their Party. However, all they can do right now is watch and see what happens – which is all that the rest of us will be doing anyway.

For moderate/Blairite Labour MPs, the possibility that Corbyn makes a half-decent fist of the coming months is probably as frightening as the other option (that he completely cocks it up and eventually self-implodes). If his antics go down well with his personal  ‘constituency’, they’ll be lumbered with him all the way through to the 2020 General Election. Which is of course just what the Tories will be hoping for.


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About Simon Campion-Brown

A former lecturer in politics at Keele University, Simon now lives in Oxfordshire. Married with two children, in 2007 he decided to monitor the Westminster village via newspaper and television and has never looked back. More Posts