The moment that it became clear that David Cameron had lost today’s PMQs came when he charged Ed Miliband with using the NHS as a “political football”: the traditional refuge of a Prime Minister in trouble. Miliband’s riposte was as sharp as Cameron’s was weak: “This is about politics. It’s his politics and they have failed.” The Tories’ “top-down reorganisation” of the health service has given Labour the licence it needs to blame the A&E crisis on them.
A punchy Miliband successfully presented the rejection of the Tories as a prerequisite for stopping the rot: “That’s why people know if they want to get rid of the crisis in the NHS, they have to get rid of this Prime Minister.” Having given every impression of wishing to deny the scale of the problem, Cameron rallied when he denonced Miliband for reportedly telling Nick Robinson of his desire to “weaponise” the NHS (Westminster argot for transforming policy issues into political ones). Summoning maximum outrage, he declared: “Now I think that is disgraceful; the NHS is not a weapon. It’s the way we care for our families, it’s the way we care for the elderly, it’s the way we look after the frail. So perhaps when he gets to his feet, he will deny that he said that he wanted to weaponise the NHS, a disgusting thing to say.” But while the attack will resonate in the bubble (and Miliband notably failed to deny it), it will mean little to voters struggling to get a GP appointment (other than suggesting a desire to transform the health service into a wing of the armed forces).
For Cameron, who began his premiership with the ambition of making the Tories “the party of the NHS”, the best he can now hope for is to neutralise Labour’s assault. Today, he unambiguously failed to do so.
The session began, appropriately, with Cameron condemning the “barbaric” attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris and robustly affirming his support for “free speech and democracy”. Miliband’s remarks were similarly apposite: “We stand in solidarity with the people of France against this evil terrorist attack by people intent on attacking our democratic way of life and freedom of speech.”