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19 January 2011

PMQs review: Miliband zeroes in on Cameron’s NHS gamble

The PM is still unable to justify the scale of the coalition’s health reforms.

By George Eaton

After last week’s ferocious encounter, this week’s PMQs was a much more sedate affair. Ed Miliband zeroed in on two of the Prime Minister’s weak spots – rising unemployment and NHS reform – but struggled to land a knockout blow.

There was never any chance of Cameron putting a positive gloss on “very disappointing” figures that show unemployment up by 49,000 and youth unemployment heading towards the one million mark. In response, Miliband accused the Prime Minister of “complacency” and of “cutting too far and too fast”, lines that will resonate with the public. But Cameron’s retort that youth unemployment persistently rose under Labour was indisputable.

Miliband fared better on the NHS, the PM once again struggling to justify the scale of the reforms planned by the coalition. The Labour leader’s demand for Cameron to “guarantee” that waiting times will not rise may have been rather juvenile, but with NHS satisfaction at an all-time high, it is the PM who could find himself on the wrong side of public opinion.

Cameron repeated his mantra that we must “get value for the money we put in” but did nothing to explain why abolishing primary care trusts and handing 80 per cent of the NHS budget to GPs will achieve this. With the Tory-led health select committee warning that the changes have not been “sufficiently explained” and the Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston likening the reforms to tossing a “grenade” into the system, concern extends well beyond the usual trade union quarters.

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Cameron was forced to restort to the Brown-type boast that the coalition offers “investment” while Labour offers “cuts”. The suggestion that state spending is a good in itself won’t have gone down well with the right of his party.

Under pressure, the PM wisely avoided some of the crude insults that marred last week’s performance, though inevitably some old favourites returned (“back to the blank sheet of paper”). But it is Miliband’s warning that the PM appears increasingly “arrogant” that should occupy his mind today.