Gordon Brown soothed Labour jitters after a traumatic fortnight during clashes with David Cameron in the Commons over the condition of hospitals.
He erased memories of a disastrous appearance in last week's Prime Minister's Questions with a forceful attack on Tory health policy. Labour MPs – who watched in silent dismay when Mr Brown was floored by the Conservative leader seven days ago – cheered his performance.
They had been shaken by a collapse in their standing in the polls following his decision to rule out a general election and Mr Cameron's strong showing at the annual Tory conference.
The angry exchanges were prompted by Mr Cameron's accusation that government targets were to blame for increasing numbers of hospital-acquired infections such as MRSA and Clostridium difficile.
The Tory leader said: "The Health Care Commission said last week: 'Where trusts are under severe pressure to meet targets relating to finance and access, concern for infection control may be undermined'.
"Will you accept that the number and extent of your top-down targets are contributing to this problem?"
Mr Brown replied: "It's because we are concerned about MRSA and C. diff that in the last few weeks we have taken very special measures – isolation wards, we are about to appoint 3,000 more matrons, we are also about to do a deep clean of hospitals."
The Prime Minister quoted the chairman of the Commission, who has said hospital managers could not blame targets for "taking their eye off the ball".
He said: "It is not targets that are to blame. We have got to invest in the health service. Will you do that as we will?"
He argued that targets had cut waiting lists and levels of heart disease.
"The reason we can invest more in tackling MRSA and C. diff is that we are spending more on the health service. You voted against that spending. None of that extra expenditure would be possible if we accepted the Conservative Party plans on spending. They have a £6bn black hole in their spending plans. It will mean deep cuts in the NHS."
When Mr Cameron went on to tackle Mr Brown about the European Reform Treaty, the Prime Minister accused him of "giving up" on the NHS.
Amid mounting uproar, he added: "I know you like pre-rehearsed soundbites and I know you are good at PR. But didn't you go too far last weekend when you went to California and said in an interview: 'Look at me and think of Arnold Schwarzenegger'? That's the last thing in anybody's mind!"
Mr Cameron countered: "People will look at you and just say here is a man who breaks his promise."
Mr Brown paid tribute to Sir Menzies Campbell, who stood down as Liberal Democrat leader three days ago, hailing him as a man of integrity and decency. He also welcomed the party's acting leader, Vince Cable, teasing him that every one of his MPs could have a turn in the job in this parliament.
Mr Cable challenged him over why he was fashioning a tax system that discriminated against millions of unmarried couples. Mr Brown hit back that marriage had always been recognised in the tax system.Reuse content