David Cameron and Ed Miliband before the Queen's Speech at the State Opening of Parliament on June 4, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Cameron's tax attack throws Miliband off course

The Labour leader struggled after the PM twisted a Harriet Harman quote on middle earners and tax.

With Michael Gove demoted after he became too toxic for the Tories, and wage growth at its lowest level since ONS records began in 2001, Ed Miliband arrived well-armed at the final PMQs before the summer recess. He had the best of the opening exchanges on these subjects, asking Cameron why he had moved the Education Secretary after previously promising to keep him in his post for years.

But midway through the session, Cameron produced a far more potent weapon in the form of a Harriet Harman quote on tax. During her new LBC phone-in show on Monday night, she said: 

Yes, I think people on middle incomes should contribute more through their taxes.

As Labour sources have been quick to point out, Harman was referring to the principle of middle earners paying more than lower earners in a progressive tax system, but the comment was easily spun by Cameron as a call for a tax rise on the "squeezed middle". 

He declared: "One of the things that wasn't noticed and happened yesterday, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, on the radio said this, and I want to quote it very precisely: 'I think people on middle incomes should contribute more through their taxes.' That is what she said ... There we are, that is their policy. The squeezed middle will be squeezed more. Now he needs to tell us which people are going to pay which taxes."

Miliband, who was clearly unaware of the remarks, was thrown off his stride, while Harman responded by shouting "It's true!", only adding to the Tories' glee. From that point onwards, the PM was in control, with Miliband left only to accuse him of "desperate stuff". The session ended with a boisterous Caemeron declaring: "Everyone can see the contrast, in this party, the leader reshuffles the Cabinet. In his party, the shadow cabinet desperately want to reshuffle the leader."

After the session, Miliband's spokesman (who was also unaware of the quote) accused Cameron of being "deeply dishonest", adding that "he knows this is not our party's position". He reminded journalists that Labour has pledged to cut taxes for 24 million middle and low income earners by reintroducing a 10p rate of tax, and made it clear that it is not proposing any tax rises for this group. 

But while true, this fall shorts of the categoric pledge - "we will not raise taxes on middle earners" - that Miliband will now be pressed to make. Unless he does, this will remain a potent attack line for the Tories. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.