Going into her first PMQs as Prime Minister on Wednesday, Theresa May faced the same struggles as a female stand-up comic. Taking the reins in an overwhelmingly male world, as only the second ever female PM and the most visible of the 29 per cent of female MPs, it was imperative that she appeared confident and in control. One tremor, pause or sign of uncertainty and, like a comedy club audience, the braying MPs would have taken the opportunity to jeer, laugh or heckle – and that’s before the press got stuck in.
Fortunately for May, she looked like a natural, and appeared to have nerves of steel. Though eight years younger and six centimetres shorter than Jeremy Corbyn, she seemed more self-possessed and at ease than the Leader of the Opposition. While he grumbled, she smirked; while he peered over his glasses, she leaned smugly on the lectern; and while he railed against injustice, she delivered a string of smart witticisms aimed squarely at both Jezza and the Labour Party. Though these were probably the work of writers (most top comedians also employ them), they tripped fluidly off her tongue as though she’d come up with them herself.
The famous quote that 'whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good' definitely applies to stand-up, where audiences often suffer from what comic Phil Kay terms 'womanitis' – lack of belief that a woman can be up to the job - but if anyone had the temerity to doubt May, she proved them wrong with style and gusto. Instead of seeming timid and submissive (the kiss of death for any comic, unless undercut by a killer line), May appeared to relish the battle of wills and wits as she laid into the opposition.
Sadly for Jeremy Corbyn, his kinder, gentler style of politics is at odds with the innately adversarial nature of Prime Minister’s Questions. It is, at heart, animalistic, and trying to take part in it without resorting to personal abuse is impossible. It is a mud-slinging charade, and refusing to get dirty will, paradoxically, get you covered in more mud than if you’d rolled up your shirt sleeves in the first place. It’s like a comic refusing to engage with a heckler – they need to be put in their place sharply and without hesitation. On this week’s evidence, Corbyn needs to come up with some stronger putdowns or risk further annihilation.