PMQs review: Miliband fights back – and wins

Cameron frustrated as Miliband pins him down on tuition fees.

After last week's debacle, Ed Miliband needed to put in a winning performance at today's PMQs and, thanks to some sharp questions on tuition fees, he did not disappoint.

Miliband began by asking the Prime Minister a simple question: "Will English students pay the highest fees of any public university in the industrialised world?" Cameron replied that the figures are "well known", but blundered by insisting they were higher still in the United States. Tuition fees are higher in the US only at private institutions.

As the exchanges continued, Cameron persistently returned to the point that Labour commissioned the Browne review, another odd response. That a government orders a review does not mean it is bound to accept its conclusions.

His claim that the Budget deficit made higher fees unavoidable was equally disingenuous. As the sixth-largest economy in the world, Britain can easily afford to fund free higher education through general taxation. In public expenditure terms, the UK spends just 0.7 per cent of its GDP on higher education, well below the OECD average of 1 per cent. The decision to triple fees is a political choice, not an economic necessity.

After Miliband's worst week since becoming Labour leader, it was a relief to see him display some much-needed wit. His sharp response to Cameron's "student politician" gibe will have impressed even some Tories: "I was a student politician, but I wasn't hanging around with people who were throwing bread rolls and wrecking restaurants." But get ready for the inevitable accusations of "class war".

Elsewhere, as he mocked the Lib Dems' four-way split on fees, he quipped: "If the Kremlin is spying on the Lib Dems, I'm not surprised. They want a bit of light relief."

By the end, Miliband was able to steal Cameron's own insult and declare triumphantly: "A week really is a long time in politics, not waving but drowning." It was a necessary admission that last week's session hadn't gone to plan. But if he can put in more performances like this, Miliband might just begin to win over some of his doubters.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.