Donald Macintyre's sketch: Jeremy Corbyn turns PMQs into a radio phone-in

At least he acknowledged that he would not have time to read all 40,000 replies

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Indy Politics

With the Commons packed – they were standing six deep just inside the chamber — Tory MPs were desperate to rise to the momentous occasion.

Sadly, Ian Pursglove’s “the Prime Minister has a lot to be pleased with Corby for [pause], that is Corby, not Corbyn,” produced only groans.

Equally disappointing for Michael Tomlinson, striving to play the straight man, was that David Cameron ignored his pointed plea for a “world-class education for our children including respect for our traditions, and perhaps even learning the importance of our national anthem”.

This was doubtless because of the New Mood set by the Labour leader after he explained that Prime Minister’s Questions had in the past been “out of touch and too theatrical” and that he was going to do things “rather differently”. This, at least, he achieved. It was about as theatrical as a mid-morning local radio phone-in, which it strongly resembled.

Wearing a brown sports jacket but with his top shirt button firmly fastened, Mr Corbyn generously acknowledged that he would not have time to read out all 40,000 replies to his crowd-sourcing appeal for questions to the Prime Minister.

But selecting questions from Marie, Steven, Claire, Paul ,Angela and Gail, he did his best to do justice to this huge range. True, you worried that having earlier shuffled rather casually through his papers, he might inadvertently declare: “Here’s one from Yvette saying, ‘how can you expect me to serve in your Shadow Cabinet when…’, oh sorry – wrong one.” But he didn’t. And worthy, even plodding, as his approach was, it was at times pretty effective.

Cameron was hardly stumped by the questions, of course, giving his stock answers as usual. But you sense that it may not much cheer and may baffle, Claire, who has five children, and says “I work part-time; my husband works full-time earning £25,000...This decrease in tax credits will see our income plummet” to be told, as she was, among other things, by the PM: “A family that chooses not to work should not be better off than one that chooses to work.”

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Secondly it helps to have some human shields. Cameron can’t really say, “I notice that the Honourable Gentleman doesn’t raise defence policy since he is all for getting out of Nato and abandoning Trident,” when it’s Marie who is asking what the Government is doing about “the chronic lack of affordable housing and … extortionate rents”.

At least, intially, Cameron tried hard to enter into the phone-in spirit: “Let me now answer, very directly, Marie’s question…”, “What I would say to Steven…”. He agreed with Corbyn about the “need to do more to increase mental health services in our country”. And though he became a little more polemical as the questions wore on – he refrained from the Flashman-style personal attacks he had regularly deployed with Ed Miliband.

But he briskly took the cue offered him by Nigel Dodds. The temperature in the chamber dropped several degrees when the DUP leader, who is made of sterner stuff than many Tory backbenchers, invoked the memory of Airey Neave, Robert Bradford, Ian Gow and Sir Anthony Berry – “MPs murdered by terrorists as they stood up for democracy and the British way of life” – and declared that Corbyn had “appointed a shadow Chancellor who believes that terrorists should be honoured for their bravery”. People, said Cameron, who sought to “justify terrorism should be ashamed of themselves”.

Bizarrely, straight after the Cameron-Corbyn exchanges, Isle of Wight Tory MP Andrew Turner complained that his local zoo was having trouble importing a tiger “kept in isolation for nearly two years, despite Belgium being wholly free from rabies”. Just as surprisingly Cameron countered by boasting that a rhino he had helped to bring to the Cotswold Wildlife Park had been named Nancy after his daughter and had been “breeding ever since she came to Burford”.

Thus Turner made Corbyn sound positively mainstream. If this was theatre – as Corbyn insisted it shouldn’t be – the show would certainly not have closed. But it may not attract quite as big an audience in future. Unless we can keep the rhinos and tigers going, of course.

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