Let us praise Ed Miliband. He asked the Prime Minister today about something that affects most people, and about which they care: the National Health Service. Last week he wasted all six questions on Andy Coulson, you will remember. This week he wanted to know why the Government was missing its target for treating people with cancer.
At one level, this is ritual. The Conservatives are getting good at cheering Miliband when he gets to his feet. This completely demoralises the Labour side: they know perfectly well that if they thought Miliband were any good, they would be cheering loudly and spontaneously themselves. This time the Tories cheered a second time when they realised Miliband was asking about the health service: they think that the NHS is the Labour leader’s comfort blanket, to which he returns when he doesn’t think he could gain an advantage on any other subject. They know that this week is supposed to be Labour’s big week for setting out its alternative economic policy: Miliband is making a speech on “inclusive prosperity” tomorrow. Yet here he was asking about Clem Attlee’s monument.
The Prime Minister’s response is also a ritual. He mentions Wales, where Labour is in charge of the NHS and many of the indicators are worse than in England. Then he mentions the “disgrace of Mid Staffs”, which he thinks is anti-Andy-Burnham kryptonite. The scandal of neglect and excess deaths there happened under Labour and, even though it was Burnham who ordered an inquiry when he became Health Secretary, the Tories cynically use it against him.
The rest was a trading of statistics. Miliband pointed out that there are more people waiting longer than the target times. Cameron responded by saying that the average wait at accident and emergency had fallen from 77 minutes to 30 minutes. Then he did the bit about “7,000 more doctors, 4,000 more nurses, 1,000 more midwives and a million more patients a year”.
I am old enough to remember Margaret Thatcher, at the same despatch box, saying they same sort of thing in the 1980s. And Neil Kinnock said the same sort of thing that Miliband said today: “This party created the NHS and every time we have to save it from that lot opposite.”
Beneath the ritual, however, this is the stuff of politics. After Miliband had finished, and after Cameron had used his last word to declare, “If he can’t do better than that even on the NHS he really is in trouble,” Anne Marie Morris, a Tory MP, asked a question. A constituent of hers had died, "failed by his GPs, out-of-hours services, the hospital, the primary care trust and the ombudsman". The Prime Minister was suddenly solicitous, and re-entered the real world in which bad things happen in the NHS whatever the party-political colour of the government.
That was the real trouble with Miliband’s questions. They were all designed to show that the NHS is in a worse state under this government than it had been under Labour. Generally, that is probably just about true, although it is treating more people without the benefit of such large annual increases in spending. And Cameron is able to select from the universe of health-service statistics a number – such as those for average A&E waits – that have moved in his favour.
But so what? Does Miliband have better policies for the NHS, apart from not letting Andrew Lansley do a pointless top-down reorganisation four years ago? More to the point, does Andy Burnham? Instead of setting out what Labour would do differently with no more money, however, Burnham intervened at the end of PMQs with a point of order to challenge Cameron’s statistics. I have no idea who is right – Full Fact will tell us shortly – but, equally, I have no idea how a Labour government would run the NHS better than “that lot opposite”.