PMQs Sketch: Ed smirks as Dave smarts

Miliband declares NHS is Cameron's "poll tax".

It must have been the third pledge of David Cameron's support in as many days which reduced the colour of Health Secretary Andrew Lansley's face to that of his hair as he was led out for humiliation and sacrifice at Prime Ministers Questions.

Officially he was parked on the front benches to prove that Dave was still on his side, but having been deliberately jammed between a rock and a hard place -- in this case George Osborne and Ken Clarke (maybe more of an immovable object) -- he had all the look of someone invited to observe his own funeral.

Although he was just out of slap range it was clear that he had been shuffled up the Government front bench to at least share the smelly brown stuff that was about to be poured on his leader for stupidly trusting him with the National Health Service. And poured it was. Ed Miliband has had his own ups and downs, as this weekly bear pit deservedly chronicled, but he's been on a roll since realizing that Dave appears to be out of his depth.

The first clue to Prime Ministerial uncertainty is how quickly the volume control is turned up during what passes for the answers part of PMQs . The second clue, and that which gives most satisfaction to the massed ranks on Labour's benches, is the sudden and unseasonal change in the colour of Dave's skin above the collar.

This is referred to as the "crimson tide" and emerged so swiftly today that one would not have been surprised if reports had come in that the Thames Barrier had suddenly been raised a few minutes after 12.

Dave was dead in the water as soon as Ed mentioned Monday's summit at Number 10 on the reform of the NHS which seemed to have excluded anybody who worked in it.

The whippers-in on the Tory side tried desperately to get their own volume up to cover the PM's embarrassment but Dave flailed about from the start.

Giving Ed as much of the finger (index) as he could the Prime Minister then tried a new, if novel, approach to PMQs by proceeding to ask himself questions on Ed's behalf and then answering them, thereby breaking two parliamentary traditions. At one stage even the hapless Health Secretary tried to come to Dave's aid and was lucky not be mugged by his minders.

Speaker Bercow intervened occasionally to point out to both sides that continued caterwauling would not go down well with the public but MPs, confident that there constituents had far better things to do that watch PMQs, continued to ignore him. (He went on to keep them back in class at lunch-time for bad behaviour).

The Prime Minister had been slipped a copy of Labour's game plan for this afternoon's latest debate on the NHS but try as he may it was obvious that Ed was not going to be diverted by a few uncomfortable facts.

And it was now that Ed launched his own recently sharpened finger in the direction of the Prime Minister and declaimed: "this will become his poll tax".

Whether it was the word tax or the word poll, the face of the other Ed, Shadow Chancellor and part-time choirmaster of the hoi polloi, broke into the sort of smile which has led the PM to describe him as the most unpleasant man in Parliament.

Having successfully eviscerated Dave it seemed a shame that parliamentary tradition meant that Labour could not immediately operate in the patient sitting next to him, Deputy PM Nick Clegg.

With his own Coalition involvement in NHS reforms looking certain to end in tears he had spent PMQs looking like someone waiting for an operation on his piles. He now seems certain for surgery at his own spring conference in three weeks time.

As Ed smirked and Dave smarted it was clear to all that this one will run and run and run even after the Health Secretary has a mysterious accident and has to go private to recover.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.