Today’s exchanges between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn in the Commons following the Queen’s Speech showed how much difference confidence makes to a leader’s performance. While Corbyn will never be a scintillating orator – speaking for far too long and ending with a sentence that seemed to be aimed more at entering the Guinness Book of Records than at making any sense – he made the most of the opportunity that such a threadbare speech presented him with. The election result may not have delivered him into government, but it has made him look like far more of a winner than the woman who called the poll.
The Labour leader felt confident enough to draw attention to the more left-wing proposals that his party had made in the election campaign, such as nationalising the water companies, in his speech. He contrasted this with a list of the Tory manifesto proposals that hadn’t made it into today’s legislative programme, underlining that this was a government that had run out of ideas. We got a glimpse of what a newly confident Opposition leader might be able to achieve in the Commons.
May by contrast stuck to the same unsure, clunking approach that she took in the election campaign, joking clumsily that Richard Benyon, who spoke before her in the Loyal Address, had used up all the jokes she had been planning. She broke off mid-sentence to allow people to intervene, an unusual mannerism which made her seem nervous and unsure. She couldn’t goad the Opposition, and she couldn’t trumpet her legislative programme as ambitious. Indeed, the emptiest bit of Kwasi Kwarteng’s Loyal Address was when he claimed that he was ‘delighted that the government’s programme is ambitious’ – referring, presumably, to the government’s ambition to exist beyond the end of this month.
Corbyn’s main weakness before this election was a hopelessly divided Labour party. There are still essentially two parties who disagree fundamentally existing under the party banner, but the difference now is that the Corbynites have won the argument about whether their leader would destroy or start to repair the ailing party. And so the Labour leader’s opponents cannot air their disagreements with him in public for a long while. There were disorientated looks on the faces of many of Corbyn’s MPs: clearly both surprised to be back in Parliament and to be watching their leader make the Tories look glum.
But Corbyn cannot relax too much about divisions in his party. The party’s main weakness is still a serious one: it does not have a clear position on Brexit that it can unite around. This was highlighted in the Commons, with the Labour leader insisting that his party was clear on Brexit, before saying ‘our position is we need tariff-free access to the European market’. Given the Queen’s Speech is so threadbare and given Brexit will be the dominant issue over the next two years, Labour cannot afford to be vague on its position, no matter how confident Jeremy Corbyn feels in the Commons now.