Ed Miliband speaks at the Scottish Labour conference last month. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Miliband holds his own in a difficult week

But why didn't he lead on the NHS?

With Labour's poll ratings falling as fast as unemployment, this was the most difficult PMQs Ed Miliband has faced for weeks. From the moment he stood up, the Tory benches were baying for blood. But in the event, he emerged largely unscathed.

He began by acknowledging today's positive jobs figures (although that didn't stop Cameron accusing him of ignoring them), a candid approach that will serve him well as the recovery continues, before turning to the Pfizer-AstraZeneca deal. The choice of subject was questionable; after Monday's policy announcement on GP appointments, the NHS seemed the obvious choice. Certainly, the issue resonates with more voters than the machinations of the pharmaceutical industry. But in the chamber, Miliband's grasp of detail and ideological self-confidence meant it proved a strong subject for him. 

Cameron landed a blow early on when he charged Miliband with "quite literally" putting politics before the national interest by initially failing to meet Pfizer's chief executive due to campaigning duties (he went on to meet him yesterday with Chuka Umunna). But Miliband recovered well, declaring that he "wouldn't take lectures" from the man who had negotiated with Pfizer over the heads of the AstraZeneca board and had acted as a "cheerleader" for the bid. 

Unable to provide credible assurances that the company would not be broken up and that jobs would not be cut, Cameron charged Miliband with hypocrisy, recalling New Labour's failure to regulate foreign takeovers, most notably in the case of Kraft and Cadbury. But Miliband's decision to break so unambiguously with Blairism shields him from this attack. His denouncement of the idea that "the market always knows best and doesn't need rules" was a criticism of both Cameron and New Labour. 

Cameron, buoyed by the Tories' first poll lead for more than two years, confidently declared: "the country is getting stronger and he is getting weaker". But Miliband didn't crumble in the way the Tories hoped today. By leading on AstraZeneca, however, he missed an opportunity to put the NHS (which Labour leads on by 12 points) centre stage. If he is turn the polls around, raising the salience of this issue will be vital. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.