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15 June 2011

PMQs review: Miliband finds the urgency he needs

Labour leader highlights Cameron's plan to cut benefits for cancer patients.

By George Eaton

After last week’s dismal performance, this was one of Ed Miliband’s strongest PMQs since becoming leader. The choice of subject matter – benefit cuts for cancer patients – wasn’t an easy one but his bold approach meant it was the right one.

Miliband led on the fact that the coalition’s decision to time-limit the payment of the contributory employment and support allowance (the new version of incapacity benefit) to one year means that 7,000 cancer patients will lose up to £94 a week. Cameron insisted that this was not the case but his defence only applies to those whose illness is terminal, not the many others who will lose out because, in the words of Macmillan Cancer Support, “they haven’t recovered quickly enough”. Once again, as the Labour leader concluded, it appeared that Cameron did not know “the detail of his own bill”. With a sense of urgency that has recently been lacking, Miliband cried: “Why doesn’t he know these arguments? The House of Commons is voting on this issue tonight!”

But it was the Prime Minister’s suggestion that Miliband was putting up a “smokescreen” to disguise his opposition to welfare reform that infuriated the opposition benches. Labour has already demanded an apology and one expects the argument will run throughout the day.

After his thoughtful speech on social responsibility earlier this week, the challenge for Miliband is to demonstrate that he is not opposed to welfare reform, merely the wrong kind of welfare reform. His decision to raise the emotive subject of benefit cuts for cancer patients, one of the reasons why Labour will vote against the welfare reform bill today, meant he achieved this today. From the start, the Labour leader buttressed his argument with research by cancer charities, a good example of how politicans can use third parties to strengthen their cause.

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As an aside, it’s worth noting just how thrilled Cameron was by Tony Blair’s endorsement of his public service reforms. He couldn’t resist mentioning the former PM at every available moment, citing his support for the coalition’s deficit reduction plan and referring to him as a “Labour leader who actually won elections”. Never was it more clear that Cameron really does see himself as the “heir to Blair”.