What will Jeremy Corbyn lead on today at Prime Minister’s Questions? The Labour leader could ask David Cameron about the junior doctors’ strike, about Europe, or about party funding, given Labour is currently fighting the Trade Union Bill, and given it was the Tory Black and White Ball this week.
But almost as interesting as what Corbyn will raise is how he’ll do it. The Labour leader has clearly grown in confidence since he started doing these sessions, and even though he’s no William Hague when it comes to jokes or rhetoric, he is asking good, detailed questions, and is slowly getting better at following up. This means that Cameron is coming to the Chamber looking as though he has spent more time preparing than he did in the autumn. He was particularly defensive at the session at the end of January on Google’s tax deal, which suggested that the Prime Minister knew he wasn’t going to get an easy ride.
Corbyn’s team prepare for PMQs over Monday and Tuesday, with Wednesday morning the key prep session. They still examine the questions that have been sent in, and sometimes use the volume of messages as a guide for what they should lead on, but generally the strategy now is to use a question as a follow-up to help sum up the problem that Corbyn is talking about.
He is helped by a couple of members of staff from the party’s policy team at HQ, and the media team, along with his PPS Steve Rotheram, who plays a ‘key role’, and is responsible for some of the jokes that Corbyn produces too. Members of staff take it in turns to play Cameron when practising exchanges. A whips’ meeting just before PMQs goes through all the backbenchers who are down to ask a question, and tries to co-ordinate the questions too – though this is difficult as a number of MPs who used to be on the frontbench are in effect running their own shadow shadow frontbench operation, with their own agenda for questions.
But all this preparation has made Corbyn’s PMQs sessions more professional, and helped him go from a backbencher who had never stood at the Dispatch Box, to someone who David Cameron does need to prepare to meet. Of course, it makes little difference to what happens outside the Chamber: voters do not decide which party to back based on PMQs. And even though the Tories, particularly George Osborne, see PMQs as a session for performing in front of your own party, Corbyn has bigger problems to overcome with his party than his performance on a Wednesday lunchtime, even if he does do well today.