It was a dull session of Prime Minister’s Questions. The House of Commons was nowhere near full. Conservative MPs cheered Theresa May dutifully but without conviction. Labour MPs, on the other hand, regard cheering their leader as a pointless old-fashioned ritual.
Jeremy Corbyn is hopeless at the pointless ritual parts of PMQs. Sparkling debate, witty repartee, entertaining probing of political arguments – all the things we saw on display last week when deputies Emily Thornberry and David Lidington clashed about votes at 16 – they are not for Corbyn.
But he and his advisers know his limitations. So today he was outdone in style and in debate by Theresa May. Yes, the dullest, most pedestrian prime minister possibly ever managed to sound commanding and to win the argument.
Yet it was Corbyn who emerged from the contest victorious. I never thought I would say it, but the Labour leader and his advisers use PMQs brilliantly. Above all, for them, it is a chance to set the news agenda. Today Labour decided to make crime the story.
It won’t be a huge story, because there was no news in either Corbyn’s questions or May’s answers, but it will reinforce a theme that played surprisingly well in the 2017 election campaign. Then, most commentators, including this one, assumed that the terrorist attacks would strengthen Tory support and weaken Labour’s, but the opposite happened when Corbyn blamed British foreign policy and attacked May for cutting police numbers.
So he started today, not by asking a question about the East Coast main line or Carillion, but about crime. “With crime rising does the Prime Minister regret cutting 20,000 police officers?”
Crime isn’t rising, of course, as May patiently but pointlessly explained. But police numbers have been cut and that means she has lost the day even as she wins the argument.
After his short, sharp opening question, Corbyn quickly lost focus, as he always does, until by his sixth question he was reduced to rambling: “I am very clear that crime is of course wrong.”
But crime is a good issue for Corbyn. The old assumption that only a Tony “Tough on Crime” Blair can win the issue for Labour no longer holds. May, the Home Office Prime Minister who cut police numbers, is vulnerable. Simply by raising the subject, Corbyn is winning.
On the Conservative side of the House, minds seemed to be elsewhere, probably thinking about the Brexit committee of Cabinet that was going to meet soon afterwards. (That was why Boris Johnson and Amber Rudd, the leaders of the hard and soft Brexit factions, sat chatting happily to each other on the Government front bench in a conspicuous show of unity.)
Indeed, it felt as if both sides of the Commons were going through the motions. But it is still a chance to choose a subject for the day’s media (including social media) and Corbyn uses it ruthlessly.