By Matthew Barrett
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In the lead up to today's PMQs, Mr Miliband had a number of possible attack lines, especially with last week's recess meaning the last session was a fortnight ago. Mr Miliband could have chosen Andrew Lansley's NHS reforms, or the controversy over the Government's workfare policies. Either way, he had an open goal. It would have been hard for him not to win this afternoon's joust, and accordingly, he came out the winner by focusing on the Government's isolation from the health profession over the NHS reform Bill.
Ed Miliband used his first question to ask why Cameron's big health summit excluded all those groups opposed to the Government's reforms. Mr Cameron responded that the Government, rather than Labour, was committed to preserving NHS spending. Mr Cameron further pointed out that an ageing population required reform. Mr Miliband pointed out Mr Cameron's inability to answer a question on the "ridiculous" summit. Mr Miliband asked whether Mr Cameron had lost the confidence of the health profession but the Prime Minister deflected the question, complaining that Mr Miliband doesn't ask questions about the substance of the Bill itself. Mr Cameron then pointed out that Mr Miliband could not ask questions about competition, reform, GP commissioning, etc, because Labour used to support those policies. Mr Cameron further asked why Mr Miliband doesn't ask a question about NHS risk registers.
Jeers from the Government benches caused Mr Speaker to intervene. Mr Miliband then asked "can he tell us what changes, if any, he is planning to make to his Bill?" Mr Cameron told Mr Miliband to "stop worrying about my diary". Mr Cameron further asked, again, whether Mr Miliband would ask about the NHS risk register. Mr Miliband said no-one believed or trusted the Prime Minister on the NHS. Mr Miliband pointed out the three new layers of bureaucracy being created by the Bill would damage the "world class" status of the NHS. Mr Cameron accused Mr Miliband of hypocrisy.
Mr Miliband responded incredulously "he doesn't even understand his own Bill!" Mr Speaker had to intervene again. Mr Miliband condescendingly said to the Prime Minister: "So let me explain to him, it's about the fragmentation of commissioning." Mr Cameron nodded. "Right, you've got it. Okay, good, I'm glad you've got it. Maybe when you've got up you can answer the question." Mr Miliband was visibly delighted with his cheap shot at the PM, laughing with his backbenchers.
Mr Cameron responded "Any longer, Mr Speaker, and I think we'd have to put him on a waiting list for care, that took so long." Mr Cameron read out some details on NHS risk registers, pointing out that Andy Burnham blocked the publication of registers in 2009. Mr Cameron condemned Labour as "rank opportunists". Mr Miliband promised to "match our record on the NHS with his any day", reading out soundbites about lower waiting times, etc. Mr Miliband said the NHS reforms would become "his Poll Tax". Mr Cameron again asked about the NHS risk registers and demanded to know why Miliband had not asked a question about the registers. Mr Cameron then read out his set of soundbites "Hospital infections? Down!", etc. Mr Cameron finally read out a section of a blogpost by Alex Hilton, a Labour blogger, criticising Mr Miliband "My problem is that you are not a leader. You are not articulating a vision or a destination, you’re not clearly identifying a course and no-one’s following you."
Some notes on backbench questions:
- Frank Field (Labour, Birkenhead) asked whether the Prime Minister would introduce a major debate in the House in order to settle "the English question", and achieve a fairer settlement for England at a time when Scotland is being offered "devolution-max", or home rule. Mr Cameron gave a weak and dispassionate answer in which he said he wanted a fair deal for all Britons, but didn't want to pander to a sense of English grievance, as the United Kingdom is a positive entity. "I want my fellow Englishmen to feel this is a successful partnership", he said. (See Tim Montgomerie's argument in favour of English votes for English laws)
- Tom Blenkinsop (Labour, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) asked whether Michael Gove's comments – that the Leveson Inquiry had created a "chilling" effect on press freedom – were the opinion of the Government as a whole. Mr Cameron dodged the question, saying it was correct that the Leveson Inquiry was set up, but that press freedom is also important.
- Peter Bone (Conservative, Wellingborough) asked a characteristically humourous question "Mr Speaker, last week at the breakfast table, Mrs Bone was saying how she knew the Prime Minister wanted to deport the terrorist Abu Qatada straight away and put the national interest first, but she knew it was being blocked by the Deputy Prime Minister and the Lib Dems. Suddenly our 11-year-old son Thomas asked "Is Nick Clegg a goodie or a baddie?"". Mr Cameron responded that Mrs Bone is psychic, as he did indeed want Qatada deported.