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PMQs Verdict: Corbyn's Getting Better But Cameron's Seen Worse

29/10/2015 10:53 GMT | Updated 28/10/2016 10:12 BST

PMQs today made it pretty clear: Corbyn is starting to employ that headmaster stare. Today, it went from a rather stern warning look to a full-on, narrow-eyed, flashing-gazed glare at the Tory front bench who promptly erupted from muffled laughter to full-on cheers, accompanied by the classic chanting of "Ooooh", which reminded me all too strongly of schooldays seated in front of a well-intentioned but sadly incompetent supply teacher.

But to be fair, Corbyn finally pulled it out of the bag today at PMQs. With the issue of tax credit cuts hovering over the Commons, following the debates, the defeat at Lords for the government, the minor victory at Lords for the government and an overwhelming amount of hysterical headlines, Corbyn managed to condense it into one simple question: Would Cameron guarantee that it wasn't going to leave families worse off?

Tom Watson's gaze drifted vaguely to the right, as if contemplating better days. Cameron and Osborne met Corbyn's eyes with a rather heavy solemnity, like two relatives at a funeral who can't decide whether or not they actually liked the deceased. Cameron was up before Corbyn had sat down.

To be fair to him, Cameron made an attempt at an answer-if an incredibly roundabout one. His statement that the Tories remained committed "to the vision of a high-pay, low-tax, lower-welfare economy" and insistence that they believed this was the best way to ensure "everyone was better off" was actually a change from his often evasive performance, which can all too often involve Cameron dancing around the question like a deranged marionette. Of course, it still wasn't a fully comprehensive answer-to get one of them from a Prime Minister would involve the weathermen urging us to stay up to watch a blue moon and hell suddenly being smothered beneath a coat of ice. But it was a slight improvement.

Corbyn repeated the question, with a rather dry thanks to Cameron for the answer. But he asked again. And Cameron answered again-a little more vaguely this time, now encouraging patience from Corbyn and Labour. Still in the realms of an answer, but getting vaguer and vaguer by the second.

Corbyn, making full use of the sorrowful schoolmaster tone, repeated the question. Watson's eyes drifted around the chamber. At this point, the Tory frontbenches broke out in laughter which prompted the aforementioned headmaster gaze from Corbyn and the burst of schoolchildren hysteria from the frontbench. They weren't alone in finding it amusing, though-Angela Eagle too, appeared to stifle a grin.

Bercow gave the customary call for order. If Corbyn sounded like the sorrowful schoolmaster, he sounded like the long-suffering Head Governor who's counting down the days to retirement. As usual, everyone acknowledged the call for calm for approximately fifteen seconds. This time, Cameron's answer was vaguer than ever, but also brought up the fact that Corbyn was opposing all of the alternative measures to reform welfare. This time, bizarrely, it was a point, but rather a different one than the one he would have been best making.

Corbyn asked again, this time supported by a rather excitable woman who voiced what has been the collective thoughts of the country watching PMQs since the beginning of the exercise in the twentieth century: "ANSWER THE QUESTION!" For a moment, I was happy to picture her shouting it at Major, Blair, Brown, and Cameron simultaneously-we've probably thought it about all of them at one time or another.

Cameron now resorted to the parent's age-old excuse that they hand out to their children when the requests for the newest toy are getting a little wearing: he would just have to wait, during which time we'll come up with a way to answer the question. To be fair to Cameron, the original answer he'd given-vague and evasive though it was-had managed to be lost in amongst his constant reiteration of the fact the Tories were definitely, undoubtedly, you-could-bet-on-your-life for the working people.

Of course, Cameron being Cameron, he seemed to decide now was precisely the right time to pull out his customary rather good one-liner-in this case, which involved Cameron himself highlighting the government's defeat in the House of Lords as "an alliance between the unelected and the unelectable." Cheers broke out, Watson's eyes drifted once again, in an apparent attempt to convince himself that this was some bizarre nightmare, Angela Eagle muttered to her neighbour.

Corbyn reiterated that Cameron had refused to answer the question but then asked Cameron directly about the line that's been on everyone's lips for the last week-the fact that Cameron had stated that tax credits weren't going to fall during his election campaign. Enthusiastic Churchill-oh-yes-style nods from the Labour benches.

Cameron, then, for the first time, gave something resembling an explanation-it didn't quite get there but it was a good attempt. His claim that he had insisted that child tax credits would remain roughly the same was something I couldn't quite remember him saying in the oft-shared clip of his reassurance that they "weren't going to fall" but it's the closest he's given to an answer on the whole debacle. He then leapt into the familiar arguments that he's used to-and let's be honest, half of us miss-with Ed Miliband-deficit denial, get off the fence, it's-you-no-it's-you arguments that we all shook our heads at while refusing to admit we found the whole thing highly entertaining.

Corbyn insisted again that Cameron hadn't answered. To be fair, he had, just not very well. But as usual, Cameron looked pretty unruffled, rather than falling back into the angry flush that Miliband used to refer to teasingly as his "crimson tide." (Once again, I wonder; am I the only one who misses the clashes between Cameron and Miliband?)

Of course, Corbyn then pulled out a question from the public-in this case, someone known only as "Karen"-which prompted the sort of laughter that any unfortunate teacher who's faced a class of excitable pupils will be familiar with. But for the first time, Cameron looked a little uneasy, biting his lip as he stood up to deliver which had to be the closest thing to a reassurance he'd given throughout the whole debate. Finally, he handed over something a little closer to an answer-that if she was on the Living Wage, she'd be benefiting from £11,000 without paying income tax and 30 hours of free childcare, as well as from-a little more distantly-related to Karen-the growing economy. Cameron, perhaps smarting from the Lords jab, then brought up an argument he knew would hit home simply because it has very rarely been strongly countered by Labour-that the reason Labour lost the election is because they weren't trusted on the economy. Cameron insisted that under Labour's plans, it would be people like Karen-who might by this point have been heartily wishing she'd never asked the question, given the hysteria it was being greeted with-who would be worse off.

It certainly wasn't one of Cameron's best PMQs. By the end of it, it had devolved to wait-and see, no-you-wait-and-see. It was one of Corbyn's better sessions-but then Cameron has come back from worse. Anyone who managed to bounce back from the phone-hacking scandals of 2011/2012 and the disastrous vote over Syria can't be a quitter. Corbyn, for his part, had finally stuck to one question and managed to make Cameron highlight what is often regarded as one of his worst traits-evasiveness. Then again, that also meant it was the only question Cameron was actually asked this week.

It's a strange thing to witness, PMQs between Cameron and Corbyn. The two seem to treat each other with a distance and almost mutual neutrality, which occasionally gives way to a chink of dislike from one or the other. It's a far cry from the weirdly entertaining exchange of insults between Cameron and Miliband, which were sometimes accompanied by a few remarks that were more teasing than damaging, often with some wry smiles exchanged between the two and even sometimes, some shared laughter.

Meanwhile, Cameron took the unusual step today of providing an answer of sorts-just not necessarily the one we were hoping for. Corbyn, on the other hand, proved for the first time he could ask follow-up questions-but now has gone too far the other way, ensuring Cameron was ultimately challenged on only one point. Overall, it was probably Corbyn's best PMQs so far-but it was far from Cameron's worst.