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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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