PMQs review: Miliband keeps his cool and wins another NHS battle

The Labour leader refused to rise to Cameron's child benefit jibes and left the PM struggling to explain away the A&E crisis.

Even before Ed Miliband got to his feet at today's PMQs, David Cameron went on the attack over his U-turn on child benefit. Reminding Miliband that he had criticised the changes in his first-ever outing at the despatch box, Cameron derided Labour's "total and utter confusion" and quipped (in response to a question from Douglas Carswell on a recall bill): "I hope the leader of the opposition will recall his attack on child benefit". He topped that later with this line: "I know I've been in Ibiza but they've been taking policy-altering substances".

But Miliband, his zen-like calm on full display, refused to rise to Cameron's bait and challenged him over the new figures showing that A&E waiting times have reached a nine year high. As before, Cameron blamed Labour's 2004 decision to remove responsibility from GPs for out-of-hours care but Miliband was on strong ground, noting that waiting times fell between 2004 and 2010, that GPs' leader Clare Gerada had described this explanation as "lazy", and that doctors blamed the upheaval caused by the government's NHS reorganisation. The voters, weary of Cameron's excuses, are likely to side with Labour, which now enjoys a 15 per cent poll lead on health (compared to a Tory lead of 3 per cent in 2010).

Cameron, who has chosen to maintain the NHS ring-fence in the Spending Review, attempted to carve out a dividing line when he claimed that Labour would "cut the NHS", but it's worth noting that Miliband last month stated that a Labour government would protect the NHS. He told Nick Robinson: "We're not going to be cutting the health service, I'm very clear about that. We will always be protecting the health service and will always make it a priority." Labour won't allow the Tories such an easy chance to claim that they are "the party of the NHS".

When the Labour frontbench alerted Cameron to as much, he replied: "That's changed as well! We've got a new health policy! Honestly, there are so many U-turns they should be having a grand prix." But while politicians and journalists obsess over U-turns, the voters are more concerned with whether the party in question has the right policy (and the majority supported the child benefit cuts). If Labour's move on child benefit helps convince a sceptical public that it would be fiscally responsible in government then it will be Miliband who gains.

A more awkward moment came when Cameron, in response to a piece in today's Daily Mail reporting that half of the shadow cabinet now support an EU referendum, asked those who did to raise their hands. When none did, he declared: "the people's party doesn't trust the people". It is precisely for fear of this line of attack that the likes of Ed Balls and Jon Cruddas have urged Miliband to commit to holding a referendum after 2015. As we get closer to the vote on the Tories' EU referendum bill on 5 July, expect Cameron to take every opportunity to make hay with this divide. 

Ed Miliband at Prime Minister's Questions.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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As long as Jeremy Corbyn's Labour opponents are divided, he will rule

The leader's foes have yet to agree on when and how a challenge should take place.

Labour MPs began plotting to remove Jeremy Corbyn as leader before he even held the position. They have not stopped since. From the outset, most regarded him as electorally and morally defective. Nothing has caused them to relinquish this view.

A week before the first major elections of this parliament, Labour found itself conducting a debate normally confined to far-right internet forums: was Hitler a Zionist? For some MPs, the distress lay in how unsurprised they were by all this. Since Corbyn’s election last September, the party has become a mainstream venue for hitherto fringe discussions.

Many MPs believe that Labour will be incapable of rebuilding its standing among the Jewish community as long as Corbyn remains leader. In the 1930s, Jewish support for the party was as high as 80 per cent. “They handed you your . . . membership just after your circumcision,” quipped the father in the 1976 television play Bar Mitzvah Boy. By the time of the last general election, a poll found that support had fallen to a mere 22 per cent. It now stands at just 8.5 per cent.

Corbyn’s critics cite his typical rejection of anti-Semitism and "all forms of racism" (as if unable to condemn the former in isolation), his defence of a tweet sent by his brother, Piers (“Zionists can’t cope with anyone supporting rights for Palestine”), and his description of Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”. The Lab­our leader dismissed the latter remark as a diplomatic nicety but such courtesy was not displayed when he addressed Labour Friends of Israel and failed to mention the country’s name. When challenged on his record of combating anti-Semitism, Corbyn frequently invokes his parents’ presence at the Battle of Cable Street, a reference that does not provide the reassurance intended. The Jewish community does not doubt that Labour has stood with it in the past. It questions whether it is prepared to stand with it in the present.

MPs say that Labour’s inept response to anti-Semitism has strengthened the moral case for challenging Corbyn. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of how the fear of “enormous reputational damage” had pushed him to the brink of resignation. As the New Statesman went to press, Corbyn’s first electoral test was looming. Every forecast showed the party on course to become the first opposition to lose council seats in a non-general-election year since 1985. Yet Corbyn appeared to insist on 3 May that this would not happen, gifting his opponents a benchmark by which to judge him.

Sadiq Khan was projected to become the party’s first successful London mayoral candidate since 2004. But having distanced himself from Corbyn throughout the race, he intends to deny him any credit if he wins. Regardless of the results on 5 May, there will be no challenge to the Labour leader before the EU referendum on 23 June. Many of the party’s most Corbyn-phobic MPs are also among its most Europhile. No cause, they stress, should distract from the defence of the UK’s 43-year EU membership.

Whether Corbyn should be challenged in the four weeks between the referendum and the summer recess is a matter of dispute among even his most committed opponents. Some contend that MPs have nothing to lose from trying and should be prepared to “grind him down” through multiple attempts, if necessary. Others fear that he would be empowered by winning a larger mandate than he did last September and argue that he must be given “longer to fail”. Still more hope that Corbyn will instigate a midterm handover to the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, his closest ally, whom they regard as a beatable opponent.

Those who are familiar with members’ thinking describe many as “anxious” and in need of “reassurance” but determined that Corbyn receives adequate time to “set out his stall”. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of being “caught between Scylla and Charybdis” – that is, “a Labour Party membership which is ardently Corbynista and a British electorate which is ardently anti-Corbynista”. In their most pessimistic moments, some MPs gloomily wonder which group will deselect them first. The possibility that a new Conservative leader could trigger an early general election is cited by some as cause for haste and by others as the only means by which Corbynism can be definitively discredited.

The enduring debate over whether the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged (the party’s rules are ambiguous) is dismissed by most as irrelevant. Shadow cabinet members believe that Corbyn would achieve the requisite nominations. Momentum, the Labour leader’s praetorian guard, has privately instructed its members to be prepared to lobby MPs for this purpose.

There is no agreement on who should face Corbyn if his removal is attempted. The veteran MP Margaret Hodge has been touted as a “stalking horse” to lead the charge before making way for a figure such as the former paratrooper Dan Jarvis or the shadow business secretary, Angela Eagle. But in the view of a large number of shadow cabinet members, no challenge will materialise. They cite the high bar for putative leaders – the endorsement of 20 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs – and the likelihood of failure. Many have long regarded mass front-bench resignations and trade union support as ­essential preconditions for a successful challenge, conditions they believe will not be met less than a year after Corbyn’s victory.

When Tony Blair resigned as Labour leader in 2007, he had already agreed not to fight the next general election and faced a pre-eminent rival in Gordon Brown. Neither situation exists today. The last Labour leader to be constitutionally deposed was J R Clynes in 1922 – when MPs, not members, were sovereign. Politics past and present militate against Corbyn’s opponents. There is but one man who can remove the leader: himself.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred