PMQs taught us a number of things about Labour and the Conservatives. The first is that while Labour has a bumper economy week underway, it does not feel sufficiently confident to attack the Conservatives on this issue in an aggressive forum like PMQs. This is probably quite sensible, given the attack that Cameron launched towards the end of the session on Ed Balls. Looking very chipper indeed, the PM said:
‘What is my idea of fun? It is not hanging out with the Shadow Chancellor! That is my idea of fun! And so, I feel sorry for the leader of the Opposition because he has to hang out with him all of the time. What a miserable existence it must be to have sitting next to you the person who wrecked the British economy, and have to listen to them, day after day, day after day, as they say to the British people, we’re the people who crashed the car: give us the keys back!’
The Prime Minister had already ridiculed Miliband’s struggle with jobs figures, accusing him of talking down the economy and quoting party figures who worry Labour remains ‘anti-business’. But he seemed quite content to go along with the NHS stat attack that Ed Miliband launched as his preferred focus for this session. Cameron’s tactic was largely to answer Miliband’s questions using different figures which he claimed showed the NHS was improving, and to claim credit for the Commonwealth Fund rating the NHS the best healthcare system in the world. Andy Burnham later used a point of order to accuse him not just of answering the questions with unrelated statistics, but of getting the stats themselves wrong. But the Prime Minister didn’t just defend his government’s handling of the NHS, he also went on the offensive against Labour, pointing not just to his favourite case study of the NHS in Wales, but also to the Mid-Staffs scandal happening on Labour’s watch as a sign that you cannot trust Labour with the NHS.
Labour sources accused Cameron after the exchanges as being ‘a combination of wrong, misleading and downright deliberate obfuscation’. That as may be, but it remains significant that Cameron is happy not just to defend his party but to attack the opposition on an issue that Labour enjoys a significant poll lead on. And it is equally significant that Labour wants to stick to attacking the Tories on an issue they beat them on in the polls. The effect, if any, is simply to build the Labour NHS poll lead, not deal with areas of weakness that voters also say heavily influence what they do in the polling booth, such as the economy and immigration.
The party argues that it is unfair to say it is running scared of talking about business and the economy when it has so many speeches and announcements planned for this week. But the question is when will the party feel sufficiently confident to raise the subject in the Chamber? It was easy when the figures were bad and the IMF and ratings agencies were piling the misery on George Osborne. It’s trickier now, and these special themed weeks on the subject are designed to give Labour sufficient ammunition to be able to to talk about the economy and fight the Tories. But it is clearly not ready to do so. If the Tories are happy to scrap over one of their polling weak spots, the NHS, then Labour has even more cause to shore up its position for an attack on the economy in the Chamber, too. And time is running out for it to be able to do that.
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