The House was loud today. The place felt charged. Perhaps it was the hot weather. The Speaker had to tell off MPs for being too boisterous during Northern Ireland questions.
When the PM stood, the House erupted. The first question thrown at him concerned borrowing—does the government’s failure to deliver economic growth mean that it will have to borrow more? Cameron replied to this saying that the government had succeeded in cutting the deficit, which is true enough, even though the overall debt burden is still rising. The PM then threw in a line about the Leader of the Opposition’s vacillation over universal child benefits. First Miliband thought it ought to be scrapped for high earning families, but now he wants it kept, claimed the PM. “Total and utter confusion,” attends Ed’s every pronouncement, Cameron claimed.
Douglas Carswell, (Cons, Clacton) then stood to ask about the mechanism for getting rid of dodgy MPs. Will the Commons be able to vote out the bad ones, in what is known as the “right of recall”? Yes, said the PM, but not only a vote. There must be a mechanism for official censure first. Cameron then rather clunkily wondered out loud whether Ed Miliband “recalled” his former position on child benefit. His own benches collapsed at this piece of coruscating wit.
Miliband then stood to put his first question, which was on the NHS, a subject that is a favourite of his at PMQs and from which in the past he has not extracted quite the return he might have hoped. It was no different today. Ed told the House that an A&E emergency was under way in the country and wondered what the PM was going to do about it. Cameron replied that Miliband was showing signs of “confusion and weakness,” over child benefit and as for the NHS, his government was hitting its targets on A&E waiting times—not bad considering that 1.5m more people are using A&E now that under Labour.
This answer Miliband found “complacent,” claiming that the PM was “out of touch.” Why are waiting times going up, he asked? Cameron pointed out that the NHS was meeting its waiting time targets, unlike in Wales, where the NHS is run by Labour and is in disarray. Ed scoffed at this, saying that after six weeks off the PM really should be able to do better. To this Cameron barked that the NHS in Wales has not hit a target in four years. He then went on to recount a long list of figures, all of them showing his government’s masterful control of the NHS. As he did so, his own benches seem subdued. There appeared a strange dissonance between what the PM was saying and the rows of people sitting behind him, his supporters, who seemed strangely uninspired by it all.
Again, Miliband accused the PM of being complacent and out of touch—he is loud when he wants to be. Much louder than the PM. There then followed some joshing over the GP contract, which Cameron said dealt the NHS a shattering economic and organisational blow and which was of course introduced by Labour in 2004. Miliband countered, saying this was nonsense and that the PM was to blame for his own top-down meddling. “Mid Staffs,” said the PM. “Our NHS is not safe in his hands,” said Miliband. It was left for the PM to point out that in this week when the Labour party is meant to be relaunching its economic policy, not one of the questions posed by the Leader of the Opposition touched on that subject. Miliband’s questions over, there then came a question on the EU referendum, at which Cameron noted that half of the shadow cabinet now supports a referendum. “Come on,” shouted the PM at the Labour front bench, “hands up who wants one.” An uncomfortable moment.
Julian Lewis (Cons, New Forest East) then put a question that was raised yesterday at Deputy Prime Minister’s Questions, specifically whether there would be a vote in the House before any arms were sent by Britain to Syrian rebels. The PM said that he had supported the vote on Iraq, and had recalled the House over Libya before British resources were committed there. He concluded by saying that there has yet been no decision to arm the rebels in Syria and so the question does not yet arise as to whether there would be a vote. This was pure obfuscation.
Miliband evidently thinks he can make hay on the NHS, but he forgets that blame for many of the problems with it are shared between the government and his own party. A further complication is that in trying to present the PM as uncaring, out of touch and an enemy of the NHS, he forgets Cameron’s personal experience of the health system, to which the PM referred in passing today and which is widely recognised. The effect is to make Miliband look the mean one. Different approach needed.