Tactics! At long last. Jeremy Corbyn actually used tactics at today’s PMQs. For the first time ever he divided his six questions into two three-ball overs. He spent the initial trio on last week’s terror attacks. Then, after an unsettling delay, he used three more on Mrs May’s fibs about school budgets. She says they’ve been ‘protected’. He says they’ve been ‘cut’. Protected. Cut. Cut. Protected. On it went. Mr Corbyn had a superb ally in the Public Accounts Committee which seems to support his view. The exchange might have been tricky for Mrs May but Mr Corbyn still can’t ram home a simple advantage. Rather than forcing her to repudiate the committee and its grandees he brought in a new, and far weaker, witness. A stalking victim named ‘Elizabeth’ has contacted the Labour leader complaining about nuisance letters arriving from her daughter’s school begging for cash. Mr Corbyn loved this. It enabled him to plod his way through a call-sheet of victims who feel cheated by the PM’s disingenuous stinginess. Kids, parents, teachers, he whimpered. A whole generation have been betrayed! The more grumblers he can claim as his affiliates the stronger he feels. But that’s trade-union sermonising not parliamentary swordplay. Which is the problem for Mr Corbyn. He doesn’t know where he is.
Wily Alec Salmond made a concise and highly effective intervention. He said that the referendum had deepened sectarian divisions across the UK. ‘Northern Ireland deadlocked, the Welsh alienated, England split down the middle, and Brexit MPs walking out of committees.’ This portrait of civil strife, expertly laced with prejudice and invective, was laid squarely at the door of the PM. And he finished with an ironic gag. ‘Has she considered whether now is not the time to trigger Article 50?’
Angus Robertson, the SNP’s chief in Westminster, would do well to study his older colleague’s style. But Mr Robertson has other things to occupy him. He gets two questions at PMQs. And though it seems unfair to double a man’s chances of making a berk of himself Mr Robertson appears not to mind. Today he accused the prime minister of breaking her word by triggering A50 without an ‘agreement’ with Holyrood. By ‘agreement’ he means ‘ransom demand’ which the SNP would swiftly claim had been disregarded. And since he’s been airing the same grievance for weeks, Mrs May listened to him with the expression of a train passenger enduring Tannoy bulletins about the itinerary of the crisp-trolley.
When on his feet, Mr Robertson exhibits all the signs of over-zealous preparation. He prefers to call himself ‘we’. He loves the sound of his own hesitations. A well-placed pause can make an orator seem poised, dignified and statesmanlike. But the same device makes a blue-suited banality like Mr Robertson appear conceited. Never mind. He’s more interested in his self-image than in his public image. And to him, the silences are crucial. These great stirring voids give him the air of a natural landmark, a granite salient, perhaps, planted in the estuary of some mighty continental river, oblivious to the swirling waters of history, unmovable and unmoved by the ebbing tides and the passing seasons. How inspiring it must be to stand in front of Mr Robertson’s full-length mirror and to watch Mr Robertson as he moulds and re-moulds the destiny of our islands. No doubt these performances take place every afternoon, in between éclair breaks. Is it too much to ask if tickets are available?