PMQs review: Cameron sends the Tories away happy as he triumphs over Miliband

Labour MPs were left glum-faced as Cameron delivered his strongest performance for months.

Ahead of the summer recess, both David Cameron and Ed Miliband needed a win at today's PMQs to send their troops away happy and it was Cameron who rose to the occasion, delivering his strongest performance for months. The longer the session went on, the more confident he seemed to grow, quipping that he longer needed Lynton Crosby's advice to "defeat a divided and useless Labour Party" and advising Miliband to "move the two people next to you [Ed Balls and Andy Burnham] and...do it fast." 

Miliband had begun by challenging Cameron on NHS staffing levels in response to yesterday's Keogh report but a well-briefed Cameron pointed out that eight of the 11 hospitals placed in special measures now had more nurses than in 2010 and that 10 had more clinical staff. A somewhat deflated Miliband then questioned Cameron over Lynton Crosby and plan cigarette packaging but, once again, the PM had come well-armed. Declaring that the decision was made by him and Jeremy Hunt alone, he noted that the last Labour government had taken the same view and produced a letter from Andy Burnham to Tessa Jowell noting that "no studies have shown that introducing plain packaging would cut the number of young people smoking". 

He again dodged Miliband's question on whether he had ever had a conversation with Crosby on cigarette packaging, merely stating that he had never been "lobbied" by him, but swiftly returned fire by pointing out that Miliband had predicted that unemployment "would get worse, not better" this year. "Isn't it time he withdraws that and admits he was wrong!", he cried. 

Miliband squeezed in a neat dig about Cameron being "the PM for Benson and hedge funds" but Cameron, brimming with confidence, ended with a flourish of rare force: 

We are getting to an end of a political session where the deficit is down, unemployment is down, crime is falling, welfare is capped, Abu Qatada is back in Jordan ... every day this country is getting stronger and every day he is getting weaker.

As the Tory benches cried "more! more!, Labour MPs looked on glum-faced.

Cameron's rollcall of achievements was an apt summary of why the Tories believe the political tide has turned in their favour. An economic recovery finally appears to be underway and the public has tolerated, rather than revolted against austerity. As Cameron noted, it is now February since Miliband asked a full set of questions about the economy. The fear among Labour MPs was always that their party's poll lead owed more to distaste for the coalition than it did to enthusiasm for them. Now, as growth returns, the danger is that it will crumble. 

David Cameron attends a press conference after the European Union leaders summit on June 28, 2013 at the EU headquarters in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.