PMQs review: Cameron plays dirty on the NHS

Miliband accuses the PM of a "disgraceful slur" after he says the Mid-Staffs report was a "reminder of Labour's record on the NHS".

Since the publication of the Francis Report into the scandal at Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust, David Cameron, against the advice of some Tories, has chosen not to politicise the issue. But at today's PMQs, the first for five weeks, he dramatically changed tack. After Ed Miliband challenged him over the sharp rise in A&E waiting times, Cameron declared:

If anyone wants a reminder of Labour's record on the NHS, they only have to look at the report on Stafford hospital. 

His remarks were greeted with loud boos and cries of "shame" from Labour MPs but Tory backbenchers were visibly energised by the intervention (one that bears all the hallmarks of Lynton Crosby). A stunned Miliband replied by accusing Cameron of "a disgraceful slur on the transformation of NHS".  

What happened at Stafford was terrible, and both of us talked about that on the day, but what a disgraceful slur on the transformation of the NHS that took place after 1997 and on the doctors and nurses that made it happen.

But in a sign that the Tories intend to make a sustained effort to pin the scandal on Labour, Cameron ended his exchanges with Miliband by declaring that under a Labour government "all the problems that we have at the Stafford hospital will be repeated again." The political war over the NHS just got dirty. 

Cameron had earlier responded to Miliband's claim that he was presiding over an NHS "crisis" by referring back to Labour's decision not to pledge to ring-fence health spending at the 2010 election. "His answer is to cut NHS spending when we are investing in it," he declared. This is a strong line for Cameron; the Tories' chaotic reform of the NHS has made it even more important for him to emphasise that the coalition has protected health.

But unfortunately for the PM, it's no longer true (if it ever was). As I noted yesterday, in his biggest spending commitment since his election, Miliband has pledged that a Labour government would not cut the NHS. Today's exchange was a good example of why. Polls regularly show that health is the most popular area of spending with voters and Miliband has no intention of finding himself on the wrong side of public opinion on this issue. 

Cameron, who has already seen tomorrow's GDP figures (which will reveal whether the UK has suffered its first-ever triple-dip recession), give no hint as to their content or on whether the government would temporarily withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights in order to enable the deportation of Abu Qatada. But a notable moment came when, in response to a question on benefits, he declared: "I find it extraordinary that heads are shaking opposite. I thought it was the Labour Party, not the welfare party." The line was an echo of what Labour MPs such as Frank Field and Simon Danczuk have said recently and will unsettle those in the party who believe that Labour has allowed itself to be characterised as soft on "benefit cheats". Expect to see it deployed regularly between now and the election. 

David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street before Prime Minister's Questions. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.