It didn’t work. But it was a good idea. David Cameron prepared an ambush for Ed Miliband at PMQs today. The trouble was he attacked the Labour leader for a vice he himself has mastered with conspicuous aplomb: question dodging.
Miliband is clearly in trouble. He’s using his only remaining strength, the NHS, to prop up his burgeoning weaknesses. Expect this to continue till next May. There’s always a calamity somewhere in the NHS and for Miliband, ill tidings are like gold dust. He painted a picture of a basket-case health system that would have shamed a failed state in the Middle Ages. Cameron, he said, wasted billions on a massive inter-departmental rejig when he came to power. Since then the Tories have delivered ‘five years of crisis’ and left social care ‘at breaking point.’
Anyone feeling poorly will have postponed their trip to A&E.
Cameron countered that the NHS is thriving. Millions of happy patients are being treated bang on time, every day of the week. And NHS England recently topped a poll of health services in industrialised countries.
Did the ailing viewer smile with relief and summon a cab to the local hospital? Probably not. This was a spat with no new facts or angles of attack. It began at a standstill and slowed down from there.
Up popped NHS Wales. Cameron loves the Welsh health service, run by Labour, as he believes it can always get him out of a tight spot. And he had a booby-trap ready: the OECD has announced its desire to embark on a box-ticking odyssey around the hospitals of England and Wales in order to pronounce a winner.
Cameron is in favour. Would Miliband accept the international jury?
Miliband failed to reply. Cameron then used his reply to note the lack of a reply from Miliband, and Miliband duly accused Cameron of failing to reply as well. Two child-actors squabbling over the front and back ends of a pantomime donkey would have created more absorbing exchanges.
Technically, the win belonged to Miliband, who protested that his job is to pose questions, not to answer them.
But the purpose of PMQs is to reveal administrative competence, and Miliband looked like a shifty bungler when he failed to provide clarity on a simple issue: 'yes' or 'no' to the OECD beauty contest. Still, his reluctance to call in the tyre-kickers has plenty of merit. Imagine it - swarms of nosy bureaucrats descending on clinics across Wales, sniffing incinerator chimneys, swabbing door handles for germs, prodding fractured knees, tugging experimentally at stitches, wincing over gooey scabs, interrogating pensioners about their bed sores, and sending lunch samples away to be tested for traces of swan, cat, horse, hamster and human.
The OECD paperchase won’t accelerate the treatment of a single patient. It’d be more sensible to build two pop-up field hospitals near Offa’s Dyke, and furnish each with a heraldic banner announcing its allegiance to NHS England or NHS Wales. Then sit back and see which one fills up faster with the infirm and the unsteady. That way, the patients will receive medical help rather than being used as hostages in an auction of political virtue. And if the contest proves popular it could be run every year, like the Boat Race.