Someone needs to have a word. There are nine more prime minister’s questions before the new Labour leader takes over, but if Jeremy Corbyn is allowed to take them all there just might not be a party left to lead.
Already the opposition benches are barely half-full for what used to be a guaranteed sell-out gig. Give it another couple of months and the place will be completely empty as more and more Labour MPs are advised by their therapists to stay away in order to avoid making their PTSD any worse. Their mental health is on that much of a delicate knife-edge. Of the five leadership candidates, only the ever loyal and nominatively confused Rebecca Long-Bailey was in the chamber. And presumably only then to learn how not to do PMQs.
Hard to believe, but there were times in the previous parliament when Corbyn could almost hold his own at PMQs. Especially against Theresa May. Then it was an almost equal contest between two normally docile cockapoos half-heartedly growling at one another over a cuddly toy. Sometimes – seemingly more by accident than design – Corbyn might even come out on top. Since the election, though, the Labour leader has been a lost cause. Lost even to himself.
It’s not even as if Boris Johnson now gets to dominate the exchanges through force of will and parliamentary majority. Rather that Corbyn has developed new strategies for making himself look utterly hopeless. On the face of it, six questions on the disastrous A&E and cancer waiting-time figures should have been an easy win for Labour, given that the Tories had been in charge of the NHS for a decade.
Instead, the Labour leader is seemingly on a mission to kill what remains of his reputation and his party with it. If he’s not going to be leader then he’s going to make sure no one else gets a go. The Jim Jones of the Labour party. Now it’s just a matter of coercing all his followers to swallow the cyanide Kool-Aid.
You’d have thought that Matt Hancock’s announcement earlier in the day that the people’s government was planning on dropping its A&E targets was an open goal. What better way to meet targets than by not having any? That way, it was almost as if no one need ever die. And even if they did, who was really that interested in counting up all the dead bodies on trolleys? Such a waste of everyone’s time. But Corbyn didn’t appear to have heard the news that had dominated the headlines all morning. So he didn’t bother to mention it.
Worse was to come, when the Labour leader referred back to his party’s manifesto as a path to a brighter future. A manifesto that had been comprehensively rejected last December by voters who didn’t trust Labour to deliver on its promises. Suddenly it all became clear: Corbyn was in denial. His psyche had taken him back to his happy place. A regression in which the election had never happened and Labour was still a credible opposition. With him as its one true spiritual leader. The man who had won the argument. The few Labour MPs still in the chamber looked on silently, their eyes sunk deep into their sockets. No one dares tell him it’s now 2020.
Boris Johnson appeared rather disappointed by Corbyn’s lack of fight. Having found himself outwitted by the BBC’s football correspondent in his early morning TV interview the day before, the prime minister had spent at least five minutes preparing for this week’s PMQs. At least three and a half minutes longer than usual, though admittedly some of that time appeared to have been spent on taking performance-deteriorating drugs. The Boris in the chamber was sweaty and spoiling for trouble. Nothing was going to trip him up this time.
Only he had no outlet for his aggression. He tried winding Corbyn up by suggesting the only reason waiting times were going up was because people were now so desperate for the full NHS experience that they were going out of their way to give themselves cancer. Nothing. Not a flicker from Corbyn. Boris then upped the ante by repeating a whole load of familiar lies about 50,000 more nurses, 40 new hospitals and a social-care plan that both existed and was yet to be drawn up. Surely Corbyn would react to that? Still nothing. The Labour leader was almost entirely inert.
Boris needed excitement. Danger. Where was the pleasure in being able to do what you liked? All the excitement of having an affair was in the possibility of getting caught. Being prime minister when there was no sense of jeopardy was no fun. It had all only been about the getting of power. Having to exercise it responsibly wasn’t his thing at all. That was for dull apparatchiks. He picked a minor scuffle with the SNP’s Ian Blackford but that was as good as PMQs got for him. The rest of the time was spent barking out staccato morse code bursts – some of them almost recognisable sentences – while promising money he didn’t know he didn’t have to any old cause. A few seats along Sajid Javid was busy making bank transfers on his iPad.
Yet again, the Speaker wrapped things up in a straight 30 minutes. Johnson’s backbenchers cheered him on, but he could tell they were just currying favour. Besides, despite the photos attached to his briefing notes, he still didn’t know who most of them were. Nor would he ever. They were nothing to him. Boris left the chamber curiously unsatisfied. He needed something on which to take out his anger. He guessed that a large chunk of cheese and half a loaf of bread would have to do.