It was damn close. And it scored top marks for effort. Miliband’s plan today was to prove that Cameron’s NHS policy is a disaster. And to prove it with Cameron’s own admissions. Or omissions.
‘It’s four years since his top-down re-organisation of the NHS,’ began Miliband in that quiet, meticulous manner that always foretells a forensic ambush.
‘Have the numbers waiting for cancer treatment got better or worse?’
Cameron instinctively dodged the question. Miliband moved on to A&E waiting times. Cameron shifted and ducked again. Miliband asked about numbers waiting over four hours on a trolley. Cameron ran for cover. With each refusal Miliband triumphantly recited the figures that the prime minister had failed to give Thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. Waiting, fretting, being let down. But it wasn’t a triumph at all. It was just a blizzard of integers.
Cameron used his classic defence and compared England-under-me with Wales-under-you. Miliband was prepared. He struck straight back with figures showing improvements in Wales. Cameron retaliated with numbers proving the opposite. But by now it was over. Miliband’s attack had dissolved in a whirl-pool of digits and squiggles. Because using maths to win an argument is all but impossible. Cameron, the wily old marketing shark, knows this in his guts. He twice deployed his distasteful but effective slogan, ‘patients dying under Labour’.
Miliband could do with a sound-bite to match that rather than investing all his faith in wonkish statistics. If he had to re-write Churchill he’d say, ‘98 percent of UK citizens will proceed beachwards with belligerent intentions.’
After this, we were invited to a 1980s party. Diane Abbot got up and thundered about wicked Tory landlords evicting saintly toilers in Hackney. Dennis Skinner complained so furiously about the NHS that his face almost disappeared in a wobbling mass of empurpled jowls. Then Jeremy Corbyn asked to come in. Yes, certainly. Nicely-spoken Jeremy, who represents posh Islington, has just discovered that London is booming. And he wants it stopped. He asked the PM for rent controls to cure a snag that he calls ‘social cleansing,’ and which normal people call ‘living where you can afford to live.’
Even your housing minister rejects that, said Cameron.
The 1980s party ended with a Tony Baldry anecdote. In 1983 a teenage prophet was spotted on Baldry’s home-turf handing out leaflets calling for Britain to quit the EEC. The embryonic secessionist? Ed Miliband. Cameron got more joy from this than anyone expected.
‘Well I suppose if that’s your idea of fun,’ he said, angling a barbed look at Ed.
‘What’s your idea of fun?’ heckled Labour.
‘Not hanging out with the shadow chancellor,’ yelled Cameron. ‘The Labour leader has to hang out with him all the time! The man who wrecked the economy. And who keeps saying, “we crashed the car, give us back the keys”.’
Balls flushed puce at this. And Miliband went so pale he almost slid off the chart. As Tory guffaws rose, a humiliated Balls began to fling one arm around while shouting abuse and heaving his doorman’s shoulders this way and that. Miliband, beside him, gazed dead-ahead, evidently trying to assume an expression of frosty contempt. He actually looked as if he’d been hit between the eyes with a man-hole cover. Honestly, they couldn’t have looked more shifty if they’d been found sharing a sleeping bag.
Mean old Cameron will try that again next time.