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14 May 2014

PMQs review: Miliband holds his own in a difficult week

But why didn't he lead on the NHS?

By George Eaton

With Labour’s poll ratings falling as fast as unemployment, this was the most difficult PMQs Ed Miliband has faced for weeks. From the moment he stood up, the Tory benches were baying for blood. But in the event, he emerged largely unscathed.

He began by acknowledging today’s positive jobs figures (although that didn’t stop Cameron accusing him of ignoring them), a candid approach that will serve him well as the recovery continues, before turning to the Pfizer-AstraZeneca deal. The choice of subject was questionable; after Monday’s policy announcement on GP appointments, the NHS seemed the obvious choice. Certainly, the issue resonates with more voters than the machinations of the pharmaceutical industry. But in the chamber, Miliband’s grasp of detail and ideological self-confidence meant it proved a strong subject for him. 

Cameron landed a blow early on when he charged Miliband with “quite literally” putting politics before the national interest by initially failing to meet Pfizer’s chief executive due to campaigning duties (he went on to meet him yesterday with Chuka Umunna). But Miliband recovered well, declaring that he “wouldn’t take lectures” from the man who had negotiated with Pfizer over the heads of the AstraZeneca board and had acted as a “cheerleader” for the bid. 

Unable to provide credible assurances that the company would not be broken up and that jobs would not be cut, Cameron charged Miliband with hypocrisy, recalling New Labour’s failure to regulate foreign takeovers, most notably in the case of Kraft and Cadbury. But Miliband’s decision to break so unambiguously with Blairism shields him from this attack. His denouncement of the idea that “the market always knows best and doesn’t need rules” was a criticism of both Cameron and New Labour. 

Cameron, buoyed by the Tories’ first poll lead for more than two years, confidently declared: “the country is getting stronger and he is getting weaker”. But Miliband didn’t crumble in the way the Tories hoped today. By leading on AstraZeneca, however, he missed an opportunity to put the NHS (which Labour leads on by 12 points) centre stage. If he is turn the polls around, raising the salience of this issue will be vital. 

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