PMQs verdict: Small slip-up aside, Osborne survives dangerous encounter

First of many? Osborne takes the wheel for PMQs
First of many? Osborne takes the wheel for PMQs
Ian Dunt By

He made one mistake and it was a revealing one. George Osborne had obviously prepared a few jokes before taking over from David Cameron at PMQs, all at the expense of the man he was facing – Labour's Hillary Benn. But he clearly wasn't prepared for the fact Benn would open with a question about the 17-year-old British man thought to have died conducting a suicide bombing for Isis.

Osborne welcomed Benn to the dispatch box, unconvincingly waxed lyrical about how proud his father would have been to see him there, and then added that his party was relieved there was "no Benn but plenty of Bennites" in the Labour leadership race.

Given the question which preceded it, it was badly misjudged. Only the most sycophantic Tories chuckled. It will have cemented the impression among his opponents that he is a heartless strategist and nothing more.

Other than that, Osborne did quite well. It was an impossible task. Do badly and rumours start that you're not up for the top job. Do well and they'll say you're trying to destabilise your leader. The only workable path is utter mediocrity, and the chancellor satisfied it. He was perhaps a little nervous, but not as terrified as other political big beasts have been when asked to do PMQs.


He refrained from the macho posturing David Cameron enjoys. He's nowhere near as self-consciously alpha. But he is needling and vicious. That Benn line spoke volumes – the moment of apparent warmth about the man's father merely a lead-in for a party-political joke.

Osborne also gave the impression of listening, which Cameron long ago forgot about. It's not that he's any more committed to transparency. He just hasn't done it long enough to become robotic.

Cameron's other techniques did come into play. He adopted his standard PMQs response – citing a contrary statistic, mentioning something favourable about the government's record in the constituency of the MP asking the question, and then finishing with a party political slogan like the 'long-term economic plan'.

He also makes thorough use of bridging phrases like "but I will make a broader argument about..." although with little grace. One question about women's refuges ended with him making a case about benefits and the hard-working British taxpayer.

Benn for his part was immensely tedious. Some observers seemed impressed by his serious manner, in what was a grave, mostly consensual, PMQs on international topics. But he has the unmistakeable air of a headmaster about him, constantly raising his eyebrow as if he just spotted the chancellor darting behind the bike-sheds. He worked his way through the questions diligently, but showed no sign of listening to the answers or being engaged with what was said. He is ultimately an unremarkable politician and his performance today reflected that.

By the time it was over everyone was bored stiff, although it was, to its credit, better than watching Miliband vs Cameron. That seems a very low bar, however.

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