In the form of the Tories’ NHS reforms, Ed Miliband believes he has identified the coalition’s Achilles heel. That was the main conclusion from today’s PMQs, in which Miliband devoted all six of his questions to the subject, despite the troubling economic forecasts from the Bank of England.
Rather disarmingly, Miliband began by asking: “How would the Prime Minister rate his handling of the NHS?” Cameron replied by boasting, Brown-like, that the coalition had “increased spending on the NHS”, a line that will trouble those in his party who don’t view state spending as an unqualified good.
The PM added that the number of doctors had increased, which prompted Miliband to point out that “it takes seven years to train a doctor” and that Cameron was paying tribute to the last government.
As he has done before, the Labour leader also noted Cameron’s tendency to “dump on” his colleagues (he gave the examples of David Willetts, Michael Gove and, inevitably, Nick Clegg), a line of attack that several cabinet ministers will sympathise with privately. However, Clegg, who looked utterly miserable last week, nodded and smiled at Cameron’s attacks on the Labour front bench.
From then on, the encounter descended into a series of pre-scripted insults and jibes. After Cameron accused him of “empty opposition”, Miliband declared: “Flashman is back”; right line, wrong time. The PM was unsparing in his criticism of the Labour leader but this was actually one of his less bully-like performances.
At another point, Miliband told Cameron to “Calm down, dear” (a line that Ed Balls used against George Osborne at Treasury questions yesterday), a gibe that already feels painfully dated and that received only grudging laughter from the Labour back benches.
For good measure, Cameron, referring to Miliband’s ill-fated prediction that Labour’s fightback would begin in Scotland, compared the Labour leader to “Eddie the Eagle”. It was hardly Swiftian stuff.
Miliband finished his exchange with Cameron by declaring: “You can’t trust the Tories with the NHS,” a line tailor-made for the broadcasters and one that he clearly believes will resonate with the public. But the PM insisted: “There’s only one party that you can trust on the NHS and it’s the one that I lead.”
An unintended putdown of the Lib Dems? One suspects that Cameron really doesn’t mind.