PMQs sounds like an acronym for something unpleasant, a debilitating disease, perhaps. And so in a way it is.
You can fill in your own affliction from the supplied letters. I shall offer Parliamentary Mouldy Questions Syndrome. In fact, of course, the letters stand for prime minister’s questions. This is the weekly bit of parliamentary theatre when, in theory, the prime minister is required to answer questions from the House. Mostly it is an excuse for rowdiness, grandstanding and tribalism – in short a perfect illustration of why most people dislike politics and politicians. It’s egotistical, noisy and very male, with lots of bellowing and braying. Outside of Westminster, nobody much likes it at all.
Sometimes PMQs can seem a little like an old-style wrestling match, with the moves/questions all worked out beforehand, and the prime minister hoping for three submissions or a knock-out. Thankfully, the contestants do not in general wear sparkly leotards, making do with smug expressions instead.
Yesterday new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had his first turn in this scrapper of a bear-pit. Having made much of how he wanted a different sort of politics, this was his first chance to do something about it. And he did.
Corbyn had a trick up his sleeve. Only it didn’t seem like a trick so much as a diffident and different take on things. He asked voters to supply the questions for the prime minister. Rather remarkably, 40,000 people sent him questions, from which he chose a few on topics such as housing and mental health. This took the exchange away from the usual tit-for-tatting. If a question comes from an ordinary voter, the prime minister can’t swagger and hurl well-honed insults in riposte. Cameron looked surprised at this turn of events, but played along graciously enough.
Whether Corbyn can repeat this trick is another matter. If he does this every week, people will soon tire of the new game. But it did at least represent an interesting start, and brought a new tone to proceedings.
Most of us, me included, only see the edited highlights of PMQs on the evening news: 30 minutes of creaky theatre boiled down to a few snappy soundbites or a choice insult or two. More often than not, the alleged questions are merely displays of sycophantic crawling from toadying backbenchers.
The answers to these fake questions build towards a well-rehearsed phrase designed to fit the headlines.
Tony Blair was good at this performance, quick witted and able to turn a phrase on the spot. David Cameron is a smart performer too, although prone to outbreaks of red-faced bullying. So it was interesting to see how Corbyn would manage in this arena, up against a man who has seen off a few Labour leaders now. And in the event, he put in a creditable performance.
He needed to be good. Expectations were not high following a shaky first few days in the job, with rows over his shadow cabinet, policy switches and his failure to sing the national anthem at the Battle of Britain commemorative service. That last one was a spat about nothing much. What it shows is that those newspapers hostile to Corbyn – ie most of them – will be constantly waiting for him to put a foot wrong. If he’d mumbled along to our dreary national anthem like the rest of them, nobody would have noticed. He didn’t play the game and received a drubbing for that.
I still can’t see Jeremy Corbyn as the answer to Labour’s prayers – if he’s not careful, he could end up answering the Tories’ prayers instead. Yet his first PMQs saw a welcome change of tone, and that was something at least.