That was a dreadful session of Prime Minister’s Questions, but it was easily Corbyn’s best outing so far, and it was the first time since he became leader that the Labour benches have solidly supported him while the Conservative benches were uncertain and unhappy.
It was interesting to see Corbyn do politics the way it used to be done. He opened by sarcastically congratulating Theresa May on uniting Ofsted and former education secretaries and asking if she could name any education experts that back her on extending selection in schools.
It was an effective question. It was done with a lightness of touch and an intellectual confidence that held the viewer’s attention and made it apparent to all that the Prime Minister failed to answer it.
Just to drive the point home Corbyn noted, each time he asked a question, that May hadn’t answered the previous one. She ran into a wall of derision when she started her second answer by saying: “He needs to stop casting his mind back to the 1950s.”
The Conservative MPs behind her were a study in the body language of wanting to be somewhere else.
It turns out, after a year as leader of the opposition, that Corbyn is capable after all of asking questions that make the Prime Minister look uncomfortable. She was on the defensive throughout. She repeated a slogan about “young people going as far as their talents will take them” three times. She inserted a slab of prefabricated homespun philosophy: “He believes in equality of outcome; I believe in equality of opportunity; he believes in levelling down; I believe in levelling up.” And she tried to change the subject on his fifth question with all the finesse of a learner-driver doing a seven-point turn, pointing out that today’s jobs figures were good.
It reminded me of some of her less impressive performances as Home Secretary, when her tactic when asked difficult questions was simply to repeat herself. As when she was Home Secretary, she ended today’s session still standing. Her view must be that as long as she has public opinion on her side, all she has to do is get through it. But it is not going to be quite as simple as that once she has to try to get actual law through not just the Commons but the House of Lords.
All of which meant that the substitute leader of the opposition, Angus Robertson of the Scottish National Party, wasn’t needed this week. He tried to repeat his trick from last week, of asking an obvious question about Brexit, a subject Corbyn tries to avoid and on which May also has no answers. Did she want to keep visa-free travel to and from the rest of the EU after Britain leaves, he asked.
The way she failed to answer it confirmed the obvious point that, once we have left the EU we cannot prevent it from imposing visa requirements. But no one was interested in Robertson this week, because the real Prime Minister’s Questions had already happened.
Andrew Grice and Tom Peck reviewed PMQs on Independent Facebook video