This week we take a break from our regular PMQs blog, with Fred Azis-Laranjo instead having a critical look at Corbyn’s first 100 questions at PMQs and whether they have been a success
The current format of Prime Ministers Questions (PMQs) was introduced by Tony Blair in 1997. This condensed two 15-minute sessions into one, 30-minute exchange on a Wednesday at noon. Due to the natural drama of the occasion – exacerbated by Blair’s changes – it is the best-known regular parliamentary business in the country.
It is the popularity of PMQs that makes it a powerful platform and what makes it important. It is tweeted about more than any other regular parliamentary event (#PMQs); it frequently leads the political agenda on Wednesday news bulletins; and it tends to dominate the political narrative for the rest of the week in the mainstream media. So it is important to get it right. If you do, your messages can be relayed and repeated for maximum reach and impact.
It is because of its impact, and its ability to shape the agenda, that Labour supporters despair that Corbyn has got it wrong, again and again. Despite reaching his 100th question today – albeit with some moderate improvements in his presentational skills over the first six months – the Labour leader still seems to be missing the point, still failing to land any blows on Cameron, and still lacking any sense of a coherent narrative.
Although ‘message discipline’ and ‘a narrative’ can seem like abstract concepts (and far too Blairite and ‘professional’ for this version of the Labour Party) they are a simple way to get your plan across to the public in a coherent manner. This graph nicely illustrates the point: the Conservatives use of the phrase ‘long term economic plan’ was repeated, over and over (almost ad nauseum at PMQs), to the point that it became an accepted fact that the Tories had the economy sorted and Labour was nowhere. It was this, outside of Ed Miliband, that was almost certainly the decisive factor last May.
Yet, even Miliband had clear issues and slogans. Whether it was ‘the cost of living crisis’, or his focus at PMQs on key themes: the economy, health, foreign affairs and tax. He also effectively interrogated the issues by (almost always) using all six of his questions to focus on one area, to hammer home his point on whatever subject he had picked that week. Corbyn, by contrast, has taken a scattergun approach, picking and mixing issues seemingly at random and not in tune with the political agenda. Why has he still not probed the PM on the EU? Why did he not ask about junior doctors despite today’s strike? Why do his statistics repeatedly seem to be out of date or wrong? Why does he keep asking questions in a manner that doesn’t test Cameron, but gives him an open goal to spout the government line? A lack of any coherent strategy appears to be the only answer.
Today marked a new low for Corbyn at PMQs. Not only in its opening did he refuse to condemn a Labour member, recently re-accepted, who is an open apologist for 9/11; but his unfocussed approach, poor choice of themes and questionable statistics meant, yet again, Cameron was laughing all the way back to No 10 from the dispatch box.
Picture Credit: BBC