Back to business at PMQs. Our ailing NHS, and its many-headed crises, were today’s key battle-ground. We hear of sick people being parked in ever tinier and more humiliating confinements: corridors, trolleys, airing cupboards, pill depositories, laundry baskets, spare gaps between drinks’ machines. All these locations, and worse, are currently sheltering patients awaiting the healing touch of some NHS miracle-worker.
Today Miliband told us of a pop-up ward which has been raised, like a Punch and Judy tent, in the grounds of some calamity-hit hospital. Plenty of ammo there to chuck at the PM. But Miliband couldn’t bring any colour or vitality to his arguments. He used percentages and numbers instead. Rather unwise. Statistics, on the page, always promise to reveal some dramatic and important truth. But recited out loud they just float off like bubbles and go pop.
Listening to a column of figures about waiting lists is like being stuck on a waiting list yourself. You pray for the torment to end. Miliband had that effect today. And Cameron defended his favourite public service with energy and guile. He cited the example of Wales where Labour is running health with astounding ineptitude. Miliband took umbrage at this and praised the last Labour government for hiring more nurses and cutting waiting lists. Cameron was ruthless: ‘Anyone who wants to read about Labour’s record should see the report into Mid-Staffordshire Hospital.’
This drew a sheepish and belated admission from Miliband. Mid-Staffs, he condeded, ‘had indeed been terrible.’ A poor outing for the Labour leader today. More than subdued and distracted, he seemed almost half-zonked. Perhaps a rival had slipped a Valium into his elevenses. Gone were the quips and grace-notes and ironic asides that he likes to sprinkle around when his confidence is up. And his closing soundbite – the NHS isn’t safe with the Tories – was as over-used as Tony Benn’s tea-pot. The conspiracy rumours may have put him off his game. His poll lead remains impressive but it’s like a spun-sugar bauble on a wedding cake. It could shatter at the lightest touch. Worse still, the wonder-drug that inspired New Labour for so long – the collective memory of the 1992 defeat – has lost its power to energise and unite.
Labour’s backbenchers tried their usual trick of depicting Cameron as an elitist parasite. How much would he gain personally from the lower top-rate of income tax? asked Susan Elan Jones. Cameron always rushes the answer to this question. He blurted out that the council tax freeze, and the rise in personal allowances, would lighten the burden for everybody. But he sounded uncomfortable.
When Tristram Hunt’s name came up, things changed. Hunt always brings a particular light to the PM’s eyes. Like a lion spotting his most formidable rival – another lion – across the simmering savannah, Cameron takes guard with a certain admiring steeliness in his countenance. Hunt scowled coldly and demanded to know why rising energy prices are giving our European rivals a competitive advantage
Cameron answered him, toff to toff, but added a hint of condescension which he knew would drive Hunt crazy. It was regrettable, smirked Cameron, that Hunt felt unable to praise the Chancellor for bestowing numerous tax breaks on the lucky industrialists of Stoke.
Even as Cameron patronised him, Hunt was frowning and chewing and muttering vengeful imprecations like some gnarled witch in a Gothic fairytale. ‘Perhaps the milk of kindness runs a little thin,’ said Cameron, needling him further.
Hunt ground his molars together, and aimed a hate-glare at the Prime Minister through his matted eyebrows. It was great stuff.