The most notable thing about today’s PMQs was what Ed Miliband didn’t ask about. The publication of Alistair Darling’s memoir, in which the former chancellor argues that Labour lacked a “credible” economic policy at the last election, meant Miliband steered clear of the economy. And he paid for it. Following Miliband’s final question, Cameron cried: “Isn’t it interesting that he doesn’t dare, in six questions, mention the economy”. For a minute, at least, it seemed as if Cameron regarded the economy as a strong suit for the coalition. But of course, with Britain facing a period of anaemic growth, at best, and a double-dip recession at worst, the reverse is true. With Osborne admitting that growth will be downgraded again, while hinting that he will cut taxes for the richest 1 per cent, Miliband had a perfect opportunity to challenge the coalition’s strategy. And he bottled it.
Instead, he led with a question on elections for police commissioners, an odd choice of subject but an example of his new focus on wasteful public spending. The £100m that Cameron plans to spend on commissioners would pay for 2,000 extra police officers, the Labour leader said. Cameron unconvincingly replied that the “figures were completely wrong” but clawed back some ground when he noted that the last Labour government also promised to introduce elected police representatives. “Why the U-turn?,” he knowingly quipped.
There followed an unmemorable exchange on the NHS during which Cameron failed to address the fact that the number of people waiting more than six months for an operation had risen by 60 per cent under the coalition. As is customary on such occasions, he quoted the shadow health secretary, John Healey, but, for the first time, accurately so. Healey, Cameron noted, had admitted that “what Labour says matters less than what almost anyone else says”. As Alastair Campbell has observed, the problem for Labour is that these days it is “the third most interesting party”.
But it was Nadine Dorries who provided the most amusing moment when, antagonised by Cameron’s opposition to her abortion amendment, she demanded to know when the Prime Minister would tell “the Deputy Prime Minister who’s boss?” Cameron replied: “I know the honourable lady is extremely frustrated”, a choice of words that provoked childish laughter across the House. Having lost his composure, Cameron eventually gave up. Nick Clegg, flattered by Dorries’s testimony to Lib Dem influence, flashed a rare smile.