Seldom has a debut been more eagerly awaited than Jeremy Corbyn’s as Leader of the Opposition. Peers crowded into the gallery. MPs stood six or seven deep at the bar of the House. Twice as many journalists were present as at a normal PMQs.
And Corbyn responded by being Corbyn. He was serious, sincere, worthy, wordy, puritanical and dull. It was like watching a Methodist lay preacher who for once in his life has attracted a vast congregation, but refuses to alter his usual dour delivery.
Corbyn declined to be theatrical, except in the sense of not being theatrical. He remained invincibly self-righteous. Half an hour later, when we trooped out of the Chamber, there was a slightly stunned atmosphere. One couldn’t exactly condemn this new, more serious tone. One might even say it shows the marvellous adaptability of our constitution: its ability to rectify its own worst faults.
By the end of the last Parliament, PMQs had too often become a tedious exchange of insults, with Cameron displaying an understandable but nevertheless unedifying contempt for Ed Miliband, while Miliband almost always failed to sustain a profitable line of questioning, and was plainly frightened of mentioning the economy.
Faced by Corbyn, Cameron refrained from displaying contempt. The new Leader of the Opposition has, after all, been elected by a large number of people.
And Corbyn said he had received 40,000 replies to his request that people send in questions to put to Cameron. For a moment the mind reeled, but Corbyn in his deadpan way continued: “There isn’t time to ask 40,000 questions today.”
He had selected six questions, from questioners – Marie, Stephen, Paul, Clare, Gail and Angela – who had also to be respected, as did their worries about affordable housing, welfare cuts and mental health.
So Cameron delivered straight replies. He laid out the Government’s case on each of these subjects: said we must continue to support people’s “aspirations” to acquire their own home, observed that we must “not go back to the days of unlimited welfare”, and emphasised that “we will not have a strong NHS unless we have a strong economy”.
Ah yes, the economy. Like Miliband, Corbyn chose not to attack on that front. Although he presented himself as the tribune of the people, raising the concerns of ordinary members of the public, his strategy was in fact highly defensive.
The new Leader of the Opposition sheltered behind his six questioners, and the worthiness of their concerns. This was skilful of him, and he had every right to do it. Corbyn lives to fight another day. But he has not yet worked out how to disconcert Cameron, and on the evidence of this performance, he will find it extraordinarily difficult to do so.