Corbyn had an open goal at PMQs. Cameron is weaker than he’s ever been. His favoured successor is toast. His party are restive and mutinous. Three months from now the retirement committee may gather around the PM with tense smiles and whetted blades. All Corbo had to do was kick straight. But asking the Labour leader to bang the ball into an undefended net is like asking a fish to sing ‘Heroes’. Up he got, looking a little bemused, like an elderly patient called unexpectedly to his hearing-aid appointment, and he set about his flat-battery attack.
It hardly helped that he’d been greeted by a tinkling silence from his own side. Labour members had spent the morning absorbing the bad news about their boss. Instead of preparing to nail the Tories over their self-imposed budget disaster, Corbyn and his team have been busy spying on their colleagues. It has, of course, been officially denied that the Labour thought-police have compiled a secret list of MPs and assigned them grades according to their fealty to the leader. But the denial feels unconvincing. Why would Corbo disavow a ploy that his beloved USSR would have applauded? Totalitarian instincts don’t fade that fast.
His assault on the PM was so feeble that one’s scorn morphed into pity. Poor Corbs. He has the air of a discarded tea-cosy that needs to be darned back together and given six weeks’ rest in a sanatorium for over-used woollens. Yet again he deployed his sole innovation: hunt-the-victim. He cited a letter from a disabled man named Adrian who feared that last week’s proposed cuts might drive him from his house into the cold and shelterless gutter. Finding totemic victims is Corbyn’s supreme gift to parliament. His hope is to personalise policy disasters but the tactic lacks surprise and it feels manipulative because the proxies are selected for exhibiting two qualities in extreme measure: vulnerability and self-dramatising eloquence.
Corbyn shifted to more effective ground. The chancellor had retracted the cuts saying, ‘we can absorb such changes.’ Which is puzzling. Why threaten to take the cash from wheelchair-users and the incurably ill in the first place? Corbyn asked the PM to explain how the missing billions would be found.
Cameron’s riposte felt improvised. And was all the better for it.
‘Ah! The king of fiscal rectitude speaks.’
Then Cameron moved onto Labour’s loyalty classifications. ‘There are five categories,’ he jeered. He picked out the Labour chief whip. ‘She’s being a bit quiet because she’s in “hostile”’
This game of mockery, (funny at the time but less so in retrospect), continued for the rest of the session. And it utterly destroyed Labour’s ability to attack the government. Every opposition query was greeted by a smirking Cameron wondering aloud whereabouts on the spectrum the questioner had been placed.
‘Hands up?’ he jeered at one point, ‘Hands up who is “core support plus”’ Cameron’s paw shot skywards. The Tories whooped like kids at a funfair. But Labour joined in and jabbed accusing fingers at the government benches. Both parties are restive and in bad humour, itching for a putsch to topple their faltering chief.
The pressure on Cameron is intense and growing. Yet it was Corbyn who looked like yesterday’s man. The coltish PM bore himself like the host of a party which is only just starting to swing.