After a fraught week for Labour, Ed Miliband returned to a scene of past glories at today’s PMQs: the NHS. His exchange with David Cameron soon descended into the kind of amorphous stats war that voters loathe, but Miliband came out on top as Cameron dodged each one of his questions. When Cameron, as usual, sought to turn the subject to Labour’s record on health in Wales, he delivered an effective rebuttal: “We know why he wants to talk about Wales – because he cannot defend his record in England.” Since the latter accounts for 85 per cent of the UK population, it is a line that will resonate with voters at the election.
Cameron waited until Miliband’s final question to produce the inevitable flurry of critical quotes from Jon Cruddas (“no interesting ideas will emerge from Labour’s policy review”) and Maurice Glasman (“absolutely no vision”), but his barbs fell rather flat. This was not the drubbing that the Tories expected. But as CCHQ was quick to note on Twitter, in what Labour has designated as its “economy week”, Miliband failed to ask a single question on the subject. Labour is arguing that it has already devoted enough attention to the issue this week, but the impression left was one of Miliband playing it safe (Labour has a bigger lead on the NHS than on any other policy area, but trails the Tories by a double-digit margin on the economy). Had Miliband gone on the economy, after a series of impressive announcements, it would have rebutted Cameron’s charge that he is desperate to avoid the subject at PMQs.
Labour has every reason to raise the sailence of the NHS, ensuring that it is one of the defining issues of the election (as I recently revealed, Lynton Crosby has ordered the Tories not to talk about it), but if it wants to pledge to save the health service again, it will soon need to explain how it would solve the funding crisis.