Brexit is going well, apparently. And the prime minister seemed in chipper mood at PMQs. She was even enjoying herself. To neutrals this is a distressing sight. To fans of the Tory leader it must seem downright dangerous. History has taught us that when May feels she’s on top the world, the world promptly lands on top of May.
Corbyn raised council tax. His theme was Tory misrule, higher bills and vanishing services. Privatisation fetishists at Northamptonshire, he said, had caused the council to implode entirely. May felt herself on solid ground as she fought back by cataloguing Corbyn’s troubles at council level which have led to two recent Labour defections to the Tories. She seemed to relish the thunderous dissent raised by the opposition benches. She leaned over the despatch box, taking her time about things, tilting her head this way, and then that way, smirking a little, dipping her chin winsomely, throwing out shy-Diana glances, and then pausing to smirk a little more. She seemed perfectly serene, if a little stagey. She attacked the shadow communities secretary for threatening a new land-value tax, (‘a tax on gardens,’ she called it), and the Labour benches howled and flapped at her derisively.
She reeled back. ‘Oh no whoa whoa whoa,’ she crowed, while swatting her hand in the air. This looked distinctly peculiar. (Her intention was to satirise the gesticulations of Labour MPs). Re-edited for a hostile TV advert, her performance could appear completely deranged. Someone with so little fluency in public should never let herself improvise. As it is, May looks like an Agatha Christie chambermaid trying to pass herself off as a duchess. By adding spur-of-the moment noises and gestures she may give the impression she’s park-bench potty.
Corbyn had the opposite difficulty. His PR wizards have coined a five-syllable motto – ‘pay more to get less’ – to attack badly-run Tory councils. But soundbites are problematic for a politician whose attraction is ‘authenticity’. The Corbyn brand is built on inadequacies which the forgiving voter takes as marks of honesty. His halting style, his extinct charisma, his rabbity overbite, his unmown jowls, his complacent beer-gut and his general air of innocuous bemusement. Each of these failings counts as a plus because we’re asked to believe that when Corbyn speaks, he speaks from the heart. But what happens when he speaks from the script? We found out today. He’d been begged by his advisers to parrot his new mantra at PMQs as often as possible. He managed it three times. And he clearly hated it. He simply couldn’t summon the artifice for the performance. Commendably decent of him, but by the second repetition he was burping it out in a gruff murmur.
The Speaker has bounced back. Last week he seemed a little cowed by the bullying allegations. Today he was fizzing with self-approval. And he relapsed into his habitual vein of humourless cod-Victorian bonhomie.
‘Mr Snell you’re behaving in a most undignified manner,’ honked the bellows. ‘Compose yourself man.’
Not bad advice, man. Perhaps one day he’ll take it.