Corbyn could have nailed Cameron during PMQs, but instead he let him get away with tragic diversion tactics

A bad Greek-themed pun is clearly the best response to a question about poor families not receiving the childcare they were promised

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The Independent Online

After the chaos of last week’s PMQs, it was up to Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron to show that British politics can be above mum jokes. So a high bar indeed, but one that was just about scraped over by each man, despite their best efforts.

In the middle of a slow week, no-one had any idea what Corbyn’s focus might be, including Corbyn himself. He started by pressing Cameron on the Government’s “broken promises” on tax-free childcare that they had promised three years ago, and looked like he was getting somewhere, before suddenly turning his focus to the crisis in teacher recruitment.

To start with, Corbyn grilled Cameron on two points: the Government had missed their target for tax-free childcare, and a third of working parents weren’t going to receive the 30 free hours of it that they had promised for three to four year olds.

Cameron surprised everyone by responding that the Tories were actually doing a stand-up job, and that everything was good with childcare, contrary to Corbyn’s "stats". He then tried to push his point home by quoting a new report on childcare by the National Audit Office’s (NAO), which says the Government has “successfully implemented the entitlement to free childcare for 3- and 4-year-olds, with almost universal take-up of hours offered to parents.”

This sounds good, although there were some bits of the report that Cameron failed to mention, like how the Government has actually cut childcare funding in real terms by 4.5 per cent, or how disadvantaged children are less likely to receive anything. Why Corbyn didn't nail the PM down on these points was sadly predictable. But maybe it was because he wasn't able to, as soon enough Cameron had already launched into his favourite part of PMQs – joke time. After his attempt to poke fun at Corbyn’s suit last week backfired spectacularly, he was careful to keep his cool.

Changing the topic of conversation with all the subtlety of a third Greek bailout, the PM took aim at Labour’s appointment of Yanis Varoufakis, describing him as the “Greek finance minister who left his economy in ruins”, before going on to say “That is Labour’s policy in two words: Acropolis Now!”

It’s probably worth pointing out that the Greek financial crisis began in 2009, six years before Varoufakis briefly took office, and that “Acropolis now” is a really awful pun. Although this misses the point. All Cameron wanted to do was mock Corbyn in a way that people, especially headline writers, would remember – and it worked. That said, it’s a shame that such blatant diversion tactics can be so effective at PMQs, especially as Jeremy Corbyn was trying to hold him to account on an issue that affects almost every family in the UK. 

Cameron then decided to go even further down the rabbit hole of his comms strategy. He claimed that the Labour leader was doing him a real solid by bringing some of the serious shortfalls of his childcare plan to light. “I am delighted he is helping me to promote Government policy!”, he scoffed.

It’s hard not to be inspired by such an approach. Next time I arrange to babysit a child for free and turn up three years late, then refuse to do it because I can’t actually afford freebies, I now know how I can spin it when they complain. “I’m delighted that you’re helping me promote my babysitting scheme by pointing out these major issues!” I’ll say, before telling them all about my sound plan for working families and leaving.

Corbyn should know by now that when Cameron starts pulling stunts like this it’s because he’s running out of answers, and that if he forced the PM to repeat the same bluster several times then he could expose him like he did in the tax credits debate. 

But the Labour leader decided to suddenly turn his attention to the teacher shortage half-way through his questioning, letting Cameron off the hook. This gave him the chance to boast that, among many other supposed achievements, over 13,000 teachers had been recruited since 2010.  But as the shortage suggests, this either isn’t enough, or is being outstripped by the numbers of teachers leaving.

The session ended with a now common sight – Cameron championing his achievements after managing to spin his way out of a half-dug hole, while Labour sits opposite, cross-armed and in near silence.