Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Ed Miliband fails to weaponise himself for NHS clash at PMQs


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Indy Politics

David Cameron said today that he had asked the new Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, what his “long-term economic plan” was. Since this is a bit like suggesting to a man whose house is burning down that it might be a good time to do a bit of loft insulation, it was presumably a joke. But hardly in the best of taste.

Which totally chimed with the rest of PMQs. Luckily there are only seven of them before the election. Just when you think it can’t sink any lower, it does. So much so that a question from Labour’s Clive Efford was the highlight, though possibly not in the way he intended. “The Prime Minister, his Chancellor and the entire Conservative Party like to talk about their ‘economic plan’. An independent report published yesterday,” he started promisingly, “by a group of academics...” And that was it.

Mocking shouts and jeers on the Tory side; crestfallen faces on Labour’s. Academics? He might as well have mentioned drug dealers. Or journalists. In many circles the country’s scholars enjoy the respect they deserve. But the House of Commons evidently isn’t one of them. “The report shows that welfare cuts contributed merely to cutting tax for higher earners and... nothing to reducing the deficit...” Efford continued valiantly. But he had lost his audience. 

It was still a relief after the NHS exchanges, in which Cameron easily out-demagogued Ed Miliband by repeatedly referring to BBC political editor Nick Robinson’s disclosure that “a phrase the Labour leader uses in private is that he wants to ‘weaponise’ the NHS...” Miliband kept getting up to remind Cameron about his “broken promises” on the NHS. Cameron kept demanding a retraction and apology for deploying the “disgraceful” term.

Whether Cameron’s outrage was quite as profound as he made it sound must be doubtful. But it worked. The mystery is why Miliband didn’t answer him back, especially as he must have known it was coming when he raised the NHS.

“Weaponise” wasn’t the happiest term, mainly because it describes with brutal accuracy what he’s doing with the NHS, and what all politicians do with the issues on which they think they can win. But there was a formula available for Miliband to hit back: “Yes, I make no apology for using the term. The NHS needs to be weaponised to defend it against the onslaughts of your rotten Government etc, etc.”

Attack, as Cameron knows better than most politicians, is almost invariably the best form of defence. It would not have been pretty. Indeed, it would have been quite cheap.

An entirely suitable approach for Prime Minister’s Questions, in other words.