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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Both Labour and the Tories have decided the 2017 election was a victory

As Westminster heads for the beach, at least one party is on course to look very foolish.

For the second time in seven years, Westminster heads for the beach after an election that no one won.

Jeremy Corbyn went into the election looking for “brilliant defeat” and he got it – a triumphant advance for him and his party, and with it, the Labour leadership for however long he wants it. Now most of his party seems to have remembered the brilliance, and forgotten the defeat.

Fortunately or unfortunately, there is a thriving cottage industry among the right-wing commentariat that is very keen to remind us all that Labour lost the election. This is certainly true, but it's also true that the party turned around a catastrophic picture as far as both the polls and local elections were concerned, and emerged with an electoral map that, unlike the grim vista Corbyn inherited from Ed Miliband, suggests that defeat for the Conservatives might be accomplished in ten months not ten years. So, yes, not a defeat of the Tories. But still a result with something to cheer for Labour.

The version of history being spun by the leader's office: that the 40 per cent of the vote Corbyn got in 2017 is part of the general unravelling of the English-speaking establishment that we saw with the votes for Donald Trump and Brexit, and that the tide of history is moving their way, isn't implausible. Certainly, I'm yet to meet anyone at Westminster willing to bet large sums of money that Corbyn won't end up in Downing Street these days.

Team Corbyn at least have something resembling a narrative. On the Conservative side, what looks to be happening now is that a large chunk of the right has told itself what went wrong is that they didn't talk about austerity enough, and that a bunch of 30- and 40-somethings decided to vote Labour because of something Corbyn said about tuition fee debt in the NME.

It's true that the new operation at Downing Street has proved that it can successfully drive the story in the right-wing press. Labour's flat-footed response to the non-story did expose vulnerabilities in the opposition's set-up. But while showing they can launch a rocket of any kind is a big step up for the post-Cameron Conservatives, it should worry that party that they don't seem to have noticed that this one didn't have a ballistic payload attached. Labour may be better prepared next time.

The contrast with 2010 is marked. As one minister pointed out to me recently, after that contest, centre-right think tanks bustled with activity and ideas. Conservative Party conference was full of suggestions about what they'd do if they won a majority. An extensive post-mortem into “what went wrong” – after an election in which the Tories gained 97 seats in one night, a post-war record for that party – occurred, both publicly and privately.

It might be that I'm not as fashionable as I was two years ago, but I was invited on to more panels discussing how the Tories could do better after the 2015 election, a contest they won, than I have in 2017, after an election they lost. Policy Exchange, that old generator of Cameron-era ideas, seems to be focused on foreign policy nowadays. As for the rest of the right-wing think tanks, they are almost entirely devoted to position papers telling us all that Brexit is going brilliantly.

It's not entirely fair to say that after 2010, the Conservatives recognised they'd lost and tried to fix it, while Labour decided the 2010 election had been a type of victory and tried to re-run it in 2015, but there is more than a grain of truth in that statement. At the moment, it looks as if both parties have decided that the 2017 election was a victory and that “once more, with feeling” is all they need to get over the line next time. At least one side is on course to look very foolish. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.