Lloyd Evans

World battles narcolepsy as wonky Miliband opens up

World battles narcolepsy as wonky Miliband opens up
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Superwonk Ed was back today. For the third week running he tried to nobble Cameron at PMQs by taxing him on some miniscule detail of policy. ‘Of the 163 statutory organisations in the health service’, asked Miliband, ‘how many will be left after the government’s top-down reforms?’ Cameron hadn’t a clue. And even at this early stage a sense of resignation was settling over the watching thousands. Trying to kick the PM with a footling facticule doesn’t play with the general public. It rarely makes the news. It has commentators reaching for lines of speed to keep awake. And the only people it excites are the opposition leader’s all-star team of fact-sifters, gaffe-spotters, Googlers and minutiae-mongers back at Labour HQ. And those are the kind of oddballs who think ‘dating’ is something you do with old tree trunks.

Cameron’s answer focused on the wider thrust of policy. Once he’s abolished strategic health authorities he wants to spend £1.4 billion securing savings of £12 billion. Quite why spending-avoidance involves a spending increase is a puzzle many of us will find hard to solve. It sounds like dodging a punch by head-butting your assailant’s fist. Or clearing the attic by setting fire to the roof.

Miliband plugged away at his special form of wonk-ological warfare. He revealed that the government planned to raise the number of statutory organisations from 163 to 521. His next Mastermind question – which received another ‘pass’ from Cameron – was also answered by himself. How big is the government budget for NHS redundancies? he asked. Why it’s ‘£852 million’, he announced. Gordon Brown had the same habit of reciting figures by heart with an air of superhuman powers. To the politician it suggests ‘grip.’ To the voter it says, ‘drip’.

Miliband’s final gambit was to demand a guarantee from the PM that no sacked NHS worker would be re-hired by the new statutory bodies. Cameron, having displayed little flair in his answers so far, attacked Miliband at last and derided his peculiar vision of a health service where every last employee was personally hired by Number 10. This was better. Cameron had found his stride. Miliband spent his final question complaining that Cameron had failed give the required guarantee and as soon as he’d sat down the PM laid into him for the issues he had so conspicuously dodged. ‘He can’t ask about strikes because he’s in the pocket of the unions. He can’t talk about Greece because his plan is to make Britain like Greece. And he can’t talk about the economy because of his ludicrous plan for tax cuts.’ This vigorous late sally was enough to chalk this up as a Cameron victory. But he wasn’t hugely convincing. Too often his only response to a direct question is to change the subject. ‘What I can tell the honourable gentleman is ….’ This makes him look evasive and faintly ludicrous. Overcautious today, Cameron waited until his opponent had shot all six rounds before lashing out, effectively, at an unarmed man.