It’s a boxing cliché that bouts between fighters of different styles make for the most exciting spectacle: think slugger Joe Frazier facing off against a dancing Muhammad Ali, or Iron Mike bobbing and weaving his way through a succession of opponents throwing out straight jabs. Like all bloodsports, politics is subject to the same rule.
Jeremy Corbyn is an out-fighter. Cautious, he throws out a succession of punches to keep his opponent at bay, hoping that eventually enough of them stick for him to be awarded a points-decision. Such a style naturally gelled with David Cameron. Corbyn furiously jabbed; Cameron parried, then dished out a ruthless finishing blow back across the Chamber à la Floyd Mayweather. PMQs finest counter-puncher.
No such luck with our current PM. For Theresa May, like Corbyn, is also an out-fighter: timid and steady, jabbing away with a steady barrage of heavy statistics. As a result each Wednesday’s bout tends to degenerate into a seemingly endless back and forth of the same punches and blocks we’ve seen in countless previous battles. Corbyn throws a left jab calling for more funding for health, May ducks and responds with a straight right claiming she is increasing funding. Workmanlike Jeremy puts out another left hand asking for yet more money. The PM again jabs back that if Labour were in power the economy would tank so there would be no funding for anything anyway. No killer blows, just body shots that are blocked with ease. Tie.
But someone in Theresa’s camp realises this. That’s why they’ve been teaching her to counterpunch. Although judging by PMQs progress must be slow, because each week the PM attempts an elegant Cameronesque riposte and each week somehow manages to foul it up monumentally. Today it came when she tried to hit big on Labour’s dismal Copeland showing. Quoting Corbynite apparatchik Cat Smith praising the byelections as “an incredible result for the Labour party”, the PM reflected that “you know I think that word accurately describes the right honorable gentleman’s leadership”. Then springing forward for the killer blow she boomed “iiiiincredible!”. Unfortunately she decided to deliver the line it in the manner of the Tiger out of the Frosties adverts, successfully cramming about forty syllabus into the word and ululating like a Tibetan yak farmer at a wedding. As political punches go, this was a Tyson Fury special, go to hit your opponent and wind up punching yourself in the face instead.
Muhammad Ali famously said that “the fight is won or lost far away from witnesses—behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights”. The PM could do well to listen and spend a few more rounds practising her political sparring on the heavy bag. If she did then she may have had a riposte for Corbyn’s one wild haymaker today, where referencing George Freeman’s comments on benefits he swung wildly across the chamber bitterly alleging that she represented “the nasty party”. An oldschool left hook favoured by veteran Labour toughies of years past.
An agile and well-trained Theresa May would have shot back that if anyone was the nasty party it was the one that threatened Tory voters in Copeland with death and in Stoke with Hell (although they unfortunately didn’t coin the undeniably catchy slogan “Vote Snell or Burn In Hell”). Instead we got a disappointing retreat to the blue corner as the PM whimpered that “my right honorable friend has rightly apologised for the comments that he made, and I hope that the whole House will accept his apology”. Phillip Hammond was clearly snoozing here because at this point any decent second would have thrown the towel in.