By Paul Goodman
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Ed Miliband wisely avoided the economy today – David Cameron would have been ready with a mass of quotes from the Alistair Darling revelations – and honed in on the public services. These two weeks of the September Parliamentary sitting are sandwiched between the summer holiday period and the party conference season. I suspect that Miliband believes that he can't achieve much momentum during this fortnight, that his big chance to make an impact on voters will be his speech to Labour's conference, and that he's therefore best playing safe unless an unexpected opportunity arises.
The second part of his set of six questions turned into a faintly esoteric exploration of whether waiting times for operations are down (Cameron) or up for those waiting more than six months are up (Miliband), or both. The NHS is not in the headlines at the moment – though an old-fashioned "NHS cash crisis" is surely looming" – and that the Labour leader went on it suggested a lack of urgency. His first set of questions had more shape – his theme being that police budgets are being cut while unnecessary police commissioner elections are being planned. The Prime Minister's response was to ask Miliband why he's frightened of elections and why he didn't raise the economy.
Four other quick points. First, this was my first sight of the Speaker since the Big Brother event, and he seemed to be a bit tougher on Labour than is usually the case, accusing some Opposition MPs of organised barracking: he had no significant altercation with a Conservative. Second, Miliband had a tilt at Patrick McLoughlin, the Tory Chief Whip, that looked a bit pre-planned: the charge that McLoughlin "doesn't care about these people" (NHS patients) reminded me of Cameron's well-judged assault in opposition on Hilary Armstrong, then Labour's Chief Whip, for "shouting like a child".
Third, Labour will be back on policing: party backbencher raised a series of security and policing-related questions. And, finally, Nadine Dorries asked a typically direct question to Cameron, asking – with LibDem opposition to her abortion amendment clearly in mind – about a series of concessions, ending with the question: "Isn't it about time he told the Deputy Prime Minister who is the boss?" The Prime Minister may not have meant to put her down by first saying that he knows she's "frustrated", and then giving up his answer after laughter from MPs, but that was the effect. It was somehow displeasing.