It was damn close. And it scored top marks for effort. Miliband’s plan today was to prove that Cameron’s NHS policy is a disaster. And to prove it with Cameron’s own admissions. Or omissions.
‘It’s four years since his top-down re-organisation of the NHS,’ began Miliband in that quiet, meticulous manner that always foretells a forensic ambush.
‘Have the numbers waiting for cancer treatment got better or worse?’
Cameron instinctively dodged the question. Miliband moved on to A&E waiting times. Cameron shifted and ducked again. Miliband asked about numbers waiting over four hours on a trolley. Cameron ran for cover. With each refusal Miliband triumphantly recited the figures that the prime minister had failed to give Thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. Waiting, fretting, being let down. But it wasn’t a triumph at all. It was just a blizzard of integers.
Cameron used his classic defence and compared England-under-me with Wales-under-you. Miliband was prepared. He struck straight back with figures showing improvements in Wales. Cameron retaliated with numbers proving the opposite. But by now it was over. Miliband’s attack had dissolved in a whirl-pool of digits and squiggles. Because using maths to win an argument is all but impossible. Cameron, the wily old marketing shark, knows this in his guts. He twice deployed his distasteful but effective slogan, ‘patients dying under Labour’.
Miliband could do with a sound-bite to match that rather than investing all his faith in wonkish statistics. If he had to re-write Churchill he’d say, ‘98 percent of UK citizens will proceed beachwards with belligerent intentions.’
After this, we were invited to a 1980s party. Diane Abbot got up and thundered about wicked Tory landlords evicting saintly toilers in Hackney. Dennis Skinner complained so furiously about the NHS that his face almost disappeared in a wobbling mass of empurpled jowls.