‘It’s getting longer and longer,’ grumped David Cameron at PMQs. A microphone picked up the aside as the session over-ran by 10 minutes.
Why the delay? First, the Speaker. He’s keen to give as many backbenchers as possible a chance to pass unrecognised on national TV. Secondly, he adores the limelight himself. At the slightest pretext he’s up on his feet demanding silence on behalf of an entity called ‘the public’. That’s his name for the handful of grumblers and job-seekers who write in each week to complain that politicians aren’t speaking in chapel whispers. Thirdly there’s the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who reacts to Tory jeers by standing statue-still and adopting the look of a masochistic scarecrow or a besieged tortoise. If there are martyrs in heaven awaiting promotion to sainthood they must resemble Corbyn being by heckled by Conservatives.
Some may regard Corbyn’s long-suffering glare as noble and virtuous. But with his glasses superglued half-way down his conk he looks like a cartoon of irascibility, a fed-up angler reeling in his fourth Space Hopper of the day. He’s not helped by his Oxfam dress sense. Today’s ensemble was a cream blazer with a badly knotted ketchup-coloured tie. It looked like the bare-minimum formality of a sulky teenager dragged to a cousin’s wedding. Or the borrowed clothes of a busker appearing as a witness at an inquest.
In the week before Remembrance Sunday, the Tories had prepared a little ambush. Backbencher Craig Tracey posed a generic question about the protected budgets for foreign aid and defence. This was like asking David Cameron to congratulate himself on being David Cameron. And he duly complied. We live, he said, in a dangerous and uncertain world. But luckily we have David Cameron to help us act like a ‘moral and generous nation’.
Now it was over to Corbs, the man who meditates during the national anthem. How would he treat the subject of the fallen?
‘We mourn all those who have died in all wars,’ he said carefully. This is the archetypal pacifist position. It seems to imply that anyone who favours one army over another is a jingo. Cameron didn’t pick him up on it but the uproar in the chamber was loud enough to splinter a whisky glass.
Corbs then set about cross-examining the PM. He did this with all the oomph of a dead lightbulb. His low-energy approach exposes him to the accusation of intellectual laziness, even arrogance. He doesn’t persuade. He states his position and waits for others to agree, or to damn themselves by dissenting. That’s his technique. But he can still elicit unforced errors. Today he scolded the PM for failing six times last week to reveal whether anyone would lose cash from the tax credit cuts.
‘Wait till the autumn statement,’ said Cameron. And he invited Corbyn to repeat the question five more times. ‘I’m sure he might find that very entertaining,’ he said cockily.
Corbyn: ‘This isn’t about entertainment.’
He’s got Cameron there. The PM thinks cutting tax credits is fun. Had Corbyn a more ruthless streak he’d use that ‘entertainment’ line every week. It’s a winning barb. But he seems to feel no desire for victory. Many on the far-left share this peculiarity. Defeat is preferable because it exposes the electors as a lot of selfish charlatans who think society exists purely for their benefit.