PMQs: Ed Miliband plays it by numbers - processology and the health service

A rapid-fire taunt about "the LibLabCon establishment" off Facebook might have been more interesting
  • @johnrentoul

I love Prime Minister’s Questions so much that I recently started a petition against Mumsnet’s petition to change it in unspecified ways. Unspecified ways that might possibly include “quickfire Q&A”, whatever that is, and questions from internet trolls. My campaign is not going well. My petition has 46 signatures. Mumsnet’s has 60,000. And today’s PMQs was a soul-deadening experience that had even me wondering whether a rapid-fire taunt about "the LibLabCon establishment" off Facebook might have raised the quality of democratic accountability.

Ed Miliband did his Questions By Numbers. Three serious bipartisan ones about process, process, process of inquiries into allegations of historical child abuse. No one knows precisely what is being alleged, but everyone can agree that it is very serious and that we should ensure that “no stone is left unturned”. David Cameron, never one to avoid a cliché worn dull by overuse, used that one first. It always depends on how many stones there are, really.

Then three comfort-zone questions about the NHS. Last week he and Cameron had traded statistics with the enthusiasm of Panini football-sticker collectors, and independent adjudicators such as Full Fact concluded that they were both right because there are different ways of measuring waiting times.

It didn’t work last week, except to enthuse people who are already absolutely convinced that Cameron is more right-wing than Margaret Thatcher and has already secretly privatised the entire NHS for the express purpose of ensuring that poor people die before they can vote. So Miliband returned to the scene of his defeat in the hope of a better result this time.

Unfortunately, he had only dull Panini stickers that everyone else already had, and Cameron had a shiny holographic rarity. He read out the numbers of those waiting more than 18, 26 and 52 weeks for treatment before the election and now and they were all lower.

Not even Miliband’s cliché counter-attack could better that. He said the Prime Minister had been “called out” on his statistics last week by researchers in the House of Commons Library. Politicians feel they have to speak how they imagine teenagers speak because it proves that they are in touch, and “in touch” is the only positive opinion-poll attribute Miliband has, so he thought he was playing to his strength.

On the face of it, Miliband’s performance wasn’t a disaster. But we are 10 months away from an election. He urgently needs to establish that the country is heading in the wrong direction, and that his front-bench team is better than the team on the front bench opposite. Today, all we got was that he would “far rather” have Andy Burnham as health secretary than Jeremy Hunt.

It is an interesting proposition. I think Miliband may be right, although Hunt has done a remarkable job of clearing up the mess made by the other side, namely Andrew Lansley. And I think Cameron is unpleasantly cynical to call Burnham “the man who presided over Mid Staffs”. The scandal had already been exposed by the time Burnham became Health Secretary in 2009, and he appointed Robert Francis to investigate it.

But really that was another PMQs wasted, and Miliband cannot afford to waste those chances. Football analogies, as opposed to football sticker analogies, are banned from political commentary for the duration. But I can only report the verdict of one Labour frontbencher: “7-1 to Cameron.”