Prime Minister’s Questions: a political football is not much of a weapon, but it could blow up for Labour

Today's exchanges in the House of Commons reviewed by our political commentator

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The Independent Online

You might have thought that normal hostilities at Prime Minister’s Questions would be suspended because of the chilling news from Paris of death and terror, but no. David Cameron’s condolences to and expressions of solidarity with the French people were perfunctory, and then he was straight into an answer, to a Liberal Democrat MP, about the NHS.

Ed Miliband was greeted by the usual ironic cheers from the Tory benches, although they were cut short as MPs realised the Labour leader was about to pay his respects to the French too. 

But then it was off into six questions about the NHS. I give Miliband credit for putting a bit of thought into it. He had a theme, a sequence. After some of his questions he asked if it had not been obvious that changes would have an impact on Accident and Emergency services. Closing walk-in centres, cutting social care and spending £3bn on a top-down reorganisation: wasn’t it obvious that each of these would have an impact on A&E?

Cameron fought back with spirit rather than conviction. He had two lines: Labour had “no solution to put forward”, and it was using the NHS “as a political football”. Both of those are certainly true but pretty weak as responses to this morning’s headlines about A&E waits at record levels.

Labour has no policy on the NHS except for some good speeches by Liz Kendall, a junior shadow minister to Andy Burnham, in which she has spoken interestingly about devolving budgets to patients. But it is a bit odd for the Prime Minister, when criticised, to say, in effect, I’m doing my best – have you lot got any better ideas?

Miliband was not quick-witted enough to respond immediately, but finally got there when he asked the question after next: “I have a very simple solution. Get rid of this useless Prime Minister.” The noise on the Labour side was spontaneous and the loudest it has been for many months. It wasn’t witty or clever but it was a palpable hit. In the end, you can’t fake the response in the Chamber: that was the only time Miliband has landed a blow for about a year.

It was a test for the Prime Minister, therefore. The one quality he shares with the Leader of the Opposition is resilience, except that they are resilient in completely different ways. Cameron is bouncy, quick, cheerful. Miliband is a shock absorber, downbeat, expressionless. The Prime Minister bounced back with his prepared attack. Cameron said that the Leader of the Opposition had said to the Political Editor of the BBC that he wants to “weaponise the NHS”. Cameron affected to be outraged by such cynicism, such a determination to use the NHS as a weapon in the election struggle. “A disgusting thing to say.” As if a politician has never sought to exploit their own party’s popular reputation on a subject before.

At least we could see why he set up the “political football” line earlier on. Usually, when a politician accuses their opponent of using a question as a political football it means that they are losing the argument. On this occasion I am not so sure: there is something so calculated and so empty about Miliband’s campaign on the NHS that many people will think that he is simply using it because he cannot think of anything else.

To go on about it, that Labour poster over the weekend saying that the Tories want to take public services back to the spending levels of the 1930s, “when there was no NHS”, is so dishonest that Miliband deserves to have it wrapped round his neck.

Challenged to deny having used the “weaponise” phrase to Nick Robinson, Miliband conspicuously failed to do so in his final question, but had nothing else to say, resorting to the thesaurus of cliché instead. “I’ll tell him what’s disgusting … trust betrayed … he’s in denial.”

So I thought Cameron emerged unscathed. If Miliband cannot secure a debating-points win on Labour’s comfort-zone subject of the NHS, then Labour’s election campaign is in more trouble than I thought. 

Twitter: @JohnRentoul