The defensive tactic of turning PMQs into a radio phone-in got Jeremy Corbyn through his six, long, questions. The benches and galleries, packed with people who had come to watch either a farce or an execution, were disappointed, and even a little bored. But the session was only disastrous for the Labour leader rather than terminal.
Corbyn succeeded in changing the style and format of the first 15 minutes of the half-hour. But one of the themes of the Corbyn leadership campaign was that he would offer full-throated opposition to David Cameron, and this wasn’t it.
Cameron can answer general questions about Government policy all day, prefacing each of his answers with a polite, “Let me answer Marie’s question ...”
Corbyn’s aim was to get to the end of question six and still be in post. It was a low target and he managed to reach it.
Given that 94 per cent of the Labour MPs behind him didn’t want him as leader, he did astonishingly well. True, when he took his seat on the front bench, a nervous seven minutes before the noon kick-off, there was no response whatsoever – from either side of the House.
Traditionally, the leader is cheered to his place by his side. When Cameron came in a few minutes later, there was loud cheering on the Conservative side.
I was surprised, too, that the Tories didn’t cheer Corbyn ironically themselves. They behaved with restraint until near the end, not barracking Corbyn or trying to put him off. This was wise.
When Corbyn stood to ask his (or rather Marie’s) first question, there was a thin, high cheer from parts of the Labour benches. And at least they were full: the embarrassing expanses of green empty spaces that I expected were all covered.
Anyway, he got through it, and sat clutching his arm and making small talk with Angela Eagle for the rest of the session, a thin smile of relief just discernible under the moustache.
Then it went bad. My former colleague Julian Knight (he used to be money editor of The Independent on Sunday) asked a helpful question about Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, which Corbyn wants to dispense with, giving Cameron the chance to say how important it is to keep it.
Then Nigel Dodds, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party in Parliament, a powerful speaker, asked the Prime Minister to join him in condemning John McDonnell, Corbyn’s shadow chancellor, for saying we should be “honouring” the IRA.
That question and Cameron’s dignified and heartfelt answer – one of his first experiences in politics was to write a speech for Ian Gow, murdered by an IRA car bomb – are devastating for Corbyn’s reputation. The voters of Middle Britain will never tolerate someone who makes excuses for terrorists.
He got through PMQs today. But he will not make it to the next general election.
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