Never Underestimate the Power of the Chamber

PB Deputy Managing Director Dan Jones writes…

Dan Jones

I’ll get my disclaimer in early – as a remain voting former Labour staffer, I’m no fan of the Conservative party and certainly no fan of Boris Johnson. But watching Boris Johnson’s first performance in the Commons as Prime Minister I was struck at how boring things had become in recent years, mainly as a result of the personalities involved.

I doubt that either Corbyn or May would claim to be the strongest Commons performers. Aside from the occasional up, most PMQs represented a down for both. The key question here is, does it really matter? Who care who ‘wins’ PMQs when it’s only watched by retirees who are probably half asleep anyway?

In response to that I would argue that it matters a lot – the way leaders are perceived by their own party and the press is hugely influenced by how they perform in the Commons. Looking back over the last twenty years, leaders fortunes have been influenced by their ability to cope with the cut and thrust of the Commons. William Hague was the first Conservative leader to face Tony Blair as Prime Minister. Despite going on to gain a statesman like profile from his time in Government after 2010, Hague was not well loved amongst the public and struggled to create a media persona that projected him as a future Prime Minister.

His Commons performances, however, were far stronger than this. Often seen to be besting Tony Blair at PMQs, particularly impressive when you consider Blair is one of the more able performers, Hague was regarded as an excellent performer who regularly demonstrated his wit, wisdom and quick thinking at the Dispatch box. Hague may have lost the 2001 election and resigned, but he was still able to lead the party into the election, which is more than can be said for his successor, Michael Howard, who always struggled in the Chamber. Given the Conservative party’s poll ratings throughout the late 90s, the fact that his party did not try and remove him is surely in part, a result of his Commons performances helping him maintain the support of MPs.

Moving slightly further forward, David Cameron was able to shape perceptions of himself during his early PMQs appearances. In his very first session he stopped mid-question and highlighted the braying and shouting from the Labour front benches, starting the call for ‘less Punch and Judy politics’. Whilst not the only factor, it undoubtedly helped cement the view of Cameron as a newer, gentler, modern Conservative leader.

Jeremy Corbyn attempted a similar trick when he first stepped up, reading out questions from the public he had received. Unfortunately for Mr Corbyn, this ‘John from Plymouth’ approach fell flat inside the chamber and came across as mildly comical. Whilst he persevered for a few months with this approach, he soon returned to the standard template of attack the Government’s record and the leader. It is probably not unfair to say that Corbyn has never been able to find a style that has won over the chamber – something that has undoubtedly impacted his perception amongst many Labour moderates. Never underestimate the impact on morale of walking out of the chamber having seen your leader humiliated, surrounded by members of the opposite party laughing and joking jubilantly.

Given the current climate and the challenges he faces, Prime Minister Johnson is going to need a little more than strong performances in the Commons to survive beyond the end of the year. But one thing that can be said –Boris’ appearances at the Dispatch Box will entertain the viewer and might just bring some point and purpose to the increasingly processional Prime Ministers Questions.