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29 February 2012

PMQs sketch: Incapacitating Dave

Ed demanded to know whether "Calamity Clegg" was for or against NHS reforms.

By Peter McHugh

It was only after Ed Miliband revealed that everyone who was anyone in the National Health Service now opposed his plans for re-organisation that the Prime Minister said he had no plans to be incapacitated.

The news came as a major disappointment to NHS staff desperate to get their hands on him having finally seen his Health Secretary Andrew Lansley off to a darkened room. The revelation came as crowds gathered for what has become the weekly ritual of Cameron-clobbing, officially billed as Prime Ministers Questions. Dave used to bounce into the Chamber in those early easy days of his Premiership; sun-tanned, sleek and superior, more than happy to face down the Labour leader. That was before Ed found the NHS. Now it’s a florid-faced substitute who turns up for ritual humiliation in front of his own less-than-happy backbenchers — not to mention the Lib-Dem part of the coalition led by Dave’s deputy, more than pleased to disassociate themselves from the disaster.

Relief shone on the Prime Minister’s already shiny face when Ed kicked off his PMQs session with a couple of innocuous questions about the Leveson inquiry, but it was only to draw his target into a false sense of security.

He then proceeded to read out a list of organisations, most of whose names are prefixed by the word Royal, who take the view that Andrew Lansley is probably certifiable and the Prime Minister is at least guilty by association. Ed’s list was so comprehensive that listeners were surprised not to hear that the Royal College of those-who-open-the-front-doors-of-hospitals-for-those-even-more-important were on it. But it was the list of those who were which obviously left the embattled Prime Minister to realize that were he incapacitated, the transfer from home to hospital might not be all he would hope for.

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To be fair to Dave he had his own — albeit rather shorter — list, but with considerably fewer royal prefixes than one might have expected from someone leading the Conservative Party. With one opinion poll showing Labour with a six-point lead, Ed declared that this health bill could cost Dave the next election; a comment which brought a lull into the mutual swopping of insults which marks the behaviour of MPs required to turn up in the Commons to register on their way to lunch. There was a toast to absent friends in the shape of Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey, whose call for industrial action during the Olympics on the morning of PMQS could not have been better timed. In the good old days this would have had Central Office and the Daily Mail beside themselves with pleasure. But despite ritual huffing and puffing by the usual suspects it never really took off, even after the PM reminded the House that Unite pick up a third of Labour’s bills.

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Thanks to the magic of the Twittersphere, not to mention that the next General Election is still three years off, Ed was able to denounce his paymaster in public before Dave could have a go. Nick Clegg had earlier called on Ed to “rein in” the Unite boss, and this was clearly enough to allow the Labour leader to single out his Lib-Dem equivalent who tries — and usually succeeds — in turning himself into the invisible man on these occasions. But he must have moved inadvertently today because Ed spotted him and demanded to know whether the Deputy Prime Minister was for or against the reforms. Having read Nick’s call to arms to his peers in the House of Lords you could see that Dave, not to mention the massed hordes of his side of the Coalition, would also have liked an answer on this. Nick mouthed his support but in the general direction of the Labour benches, thereby leaving both side still not knowing where he stood.

It was this which led the aptly named Tory MP Peter Bone, who makes regular attacks on the Coalition with all the candour of a man who knows he will never be a Minister, to ask the PM who would take over if he was incapacitated. Casting an eye over his deputy, described as “Calamity Clegg” earlier in the proceedings, Dave said he had no plans to be incapacitated. Ed just smiled.