PMQs saw a new leader of the opposition (LO) on Wednesday, Jeremy Corbyn, who won a rather surprising victory in the Labour party leadership election. Corbyn’s first appearance and performance at PMQs was scrutinised very carefully by the media demonstrating the importance of this weekly event in the House of Commons.
When Corbyn stood up for the first time there was a resounding cheer from the Labour benches for their new leader. The Conservative benches were surprisingly quiet. In the past they would often cheer the Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, as he stood up in a mocking tone to suggest that he does not get enough support from his own benches. They clearly took a principled decision not to do that for Corbyn’s first PMQs but it remains to be seen whether they will continue like this in the future.
Corbyn indicated that he hoped that PMQs would take on a different tone and be less ‘theatrical’ than it had been in the past. He referred back to David Cameron’s appeal for a more civilised question time in 2005 when he first became leader of the opposition. New leaders often make this sort of appeal when first standing up at the despatch box during PMQs but the tone often descends into ‘Punch and Judy’ politics as time passes. Conversation is a ‘joint enterprise’ and so the tone is not only dependent on what Corbyn wants, but also what the Prime Minister wants. And, importantly, what the chamber wants since the audience, as I have argued in the past, is a partner in this joint enterprise.
Corbyn came to power largely due to the support from ordinary members of the Labour party rather than the sitting Labour MPs. In fact, many of the Labour MPs have been openly hostile to Corbyn and his ‘hard-left’ political ideas. It was probably rather fitting then that he chose to source his questions not from the backbenches but from ordinary members of the public who had replied to his email request for questions. It was because of this that several commentators called him a ‘tribune to the people’.
The Power of Evidentiality
In conversation, overtly stating the source of a question can often be a powerful device since it provides the evidentiality for the proposition and thus lends legitimacy and urgency to the question. Politicians often like to phrase and mention questions from leading luminaries, groups or research institutes in order to validate their questions.
Corbyn’s crowdsourcing of questions from the general public had the effect of disarming Cameron leaving him with no option but to answer the questions sincerely and openly. Corbyn (LO) made sure that each question was prefaced with the name of the questioner:
LO: from a woman called Marie who says ... LO: I ask a question (.) from Claire (.) who says this ... LO: Paul for example (.) says this very heartfelt question
Sometime Corbyn would state the role of the questioner to further provide legitimacy to the question:
LO: I’ve got a question (.) from Stephen (.) who works for a housing association LO: I ask a question from (.) Angela who’s a mental health professional (.) so she knows exactly what she’s talking about
The effect of mentioning the first name of each questioner was to prevent Cameron from attacking the basis of each question and the presuppositions on which it was based. Cameron (PM) in return often used the name of the questioner in his reply to indicate empathy with the public:
PM: now let me answer very directly (.) Marie’s question PM: what I would say to Stephen and all those working in housing associations and and doing a good job PM: what I would say to Angela
A change in tone with Angus Robertson
An interesting change in tone and attitude was observed in Cameron’s style when Angus Robertson, the leader of the SNP, got up to ask his two allotted questions. Cameron’s first reply exhibited a raised voice, exaggerated tones and dismissive looks which were indicative of the style he often employed with Ed Miliband during the Punch-and-Judy days. Notice also how the chamber contributes to the change in tone of the discourse though the partisan ‘shouts of agreement’:
PM: we have delivered on ALL of the promises that we made Chamber: ((shouts of agreement)) PM: we said (.) we said we would introduce a Scotland bill we introduced a Scotland bill we said unprecedented devolution on taxes there’s been unprecedented devolution on taxes we said that we’d provide those welfare powers we’ve given those welfare powers the question is now for the SNP when are you gonna stop talking about processes and when are you gonna start telling us what taxes you’re gonna put up what welfare changes you’re gonna be made or are you (.) when it comes to talking about the issue (.) frit
The word ‘frit’ is slang for frightened and is occasionally used in the House of Commons but has a rather harsh tone. Example of thatcher using the word ‘frit’ in 1983 – external link
Cameron’s body language and facial expressions also changed to reflect the adversarial mood of Cameron.
Robertson seemed quite taken aback by Cameron’s sudden attack and reminded him of the promise he’d made for the new style of PMQs. In reply, Cameron said it would take some getting used to, and his subsequent reply was calmer and more measured. He even corrected his own use of personal pronoun ‘you’ to ‘he’ which is considered more formal in the House of Commons:
PM: you give me a list (.) sorry (.) he should give me a list