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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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.