Incredible events in the chamber today. An absolute sensation at PMQS. For the first time since last summer, Ed Miliband got through the session without triggering talk of a leadership crisis. There was gloomy news aplenty to dwell on. Debts soaring; growth flat-lining; dole queues snaking back through blighted high streets and bankrupt business parks.
The Labour leader chose to wallop Cameron with a well-prepared attack on the NHS. Quoting the prime minister’s vow, ‘to take our nurses and doctors with us’, he asked why the government had stopped listening. The prime minister’s reply was frivolous and desperate. He giggled and smirked like a teenager at the despatch box and tried to make light of his loathed policy. ‘When it comes to the NHS you should always expect a second opinion,’ he quipped. An early diagnosis of that gag — ‘no pulse’ — should have prevented it from ever reaching the house. Blithely, Cameron informed us that thousands of doctors supported his policy although he was able quote only one of them. Anonymously too. This mystery medic, said the Prime Minister, had ‘once been acting chair of a local GP group in Doncaster!’ Hearing the name of Miliband’s constituency, the jubilant Tories cried out in resounding echoes. ‘Ah, in Doncaster. Ooh, Doncaster! Ah! Ooh Doncaster. Umm! Ooh!’ as if Mr Miliband had been caught opening an off-shore account named after his dog. The prime minister read the testimony of his solitary supergrass. ‘Being one of the pathfinder areas is a real boost for Doncaster.’
Miliband fired back. ‘How out of touch is he about what is happening in the NHS? The latest survey from the Royal College of GPs says that says 98 per cent want to end the reforms.’ Cameron’s response was feeble: ‘He seems to be out of touch with what’s happening in Doncaster.’ And it got feebler. He resorted to Gordon Brown’s favourite tactic: instead of answering the question, he set about chiselling a list of NHS achievements into the parliamentary record.
More patients treated, he declared. Seven billion quid saved. Waiting times lowered. Thousands of extra nurses on the wards (trained mostly while Labour held office, of course). Thousands of extra doctors too (trained entirely while Labour held office, by the way). Tepid Tory cheers greeted each hollow blast. And yet Miliband was unable to demolish this slothful and complacent defence. Why? Because Miliband cannot think on his feet. He can’t even think when he’s sitting on his hands listening to an opponent begging to be taken apart. That Cameron has discovered only one fan of his policy in a health service that employs more people than there are craters on the moon is a disastrous admission. But Miliband’s maladroit debating skills let him get away with it.
The Tory backbenches also came to the rescue by highlighting Labour’s hypocrisy on BenCap. The benefits cap has kept the whips busy and they had a crack team of backbenchers lined up to articulate the government’s case. Many of these Tories had the sort of ‘genuine’ northern accents that advertisers favour when promoting ‘reet-tasty cheese’ or ‘good-honest broadband.’ The first was Eric Ollerenshaw, (a name that brings a lovely Lancashire lilt into the voice), who said that the cap represents a ‘fair deal on benefits.’ Paul Maynard, of Blackpool, praised Cameron for ‘doing the right thing’, and Chris Kelly from Dudley, dared to suggest that limit was too high.
The whips even let a couple of posh southerners have a crack at it. Chris Skidmore, of Kingswood, denounced Labour’s policy as ‘a damned disgrace’. The Speaker instantly yellow-carded him for besmirching the chamber’s honour with his caddish vocabulary. Mr Skidmore glowed with the special pride of the righteous outlaw.
Bob Stewart, ex-military, contrasted pensioners struggling on £7,000 per annum with jobless benefiteers luxuriating on £26,000. Unhelpfully, this put the PM in a bit of a spot. Why, one wonders, are pensioners still stirring the cold gruel of poverty? Happily, Mr Smoothie-Chops had the answer. He assured the nation that he plans to tip the elderly £5 per week from next April.
Cameron might have been in trouble today but the hopeless, hapless Mr Miliband, even at his best, can’t find a way to damage him.