Towards the end of 2014, David Cameron was finding PMQs ‘boring’. He knew that it was turning into a session where each week both he and Ed Miliband basically said the same thing over and over again, usually with a long string of statistics that the other couldn’t quibble while in the Chamber. He would talk about the importance of a strong economy, while Miliband would talk about the NHS. And then everyone would filter back out of the Chamber having learned nothing.
Well, today the Prime Minister will probably find PMQs takes the same ‘boring’ format, but if Miliband crafts something less stunningly dull than a string of statistics (which both men are guilty of) then he could make the exchanges really quite difficult for the Prime Minister. The Labour leader has a really good reason to talk about the NHS this week, above the fact that Labour leads in the polls on this issue. There’s a crisis, and it’s occupying significant space in the papers and significant time on the news bulletins.
Cameron said yesterday that he took responsibility for the performance of A&E departments as a Prime Minister takes responsibility for all the workings of government. But even though the current crisis has many causes, he will need to show that ministers are doing something to alleviate the current pressure. This ‘doing something’ is always important to the political ding-dong – even if it isn’t particularly effective, as the apparent surprise that the ebola screening at airports that was announced following political pressure wasn’t particularly effectual at anything other than sending out a political message. Of course, ‘doing something’ properly would also involve long-term work on the problems (and others) listed here, but PMQs was never a great forum for a long discussion about the working practices of emergency room doctors, and it certainly won’t become a better forum for that between now and the general election.
The challenge for Miliband is whether he can make this attack on the NHS more forceful than the many other ones he’s produced at PMQs over the last few months. He needs to appear to be the man who’d been warning ministers for months, rather than the boy who cried wolf until something happened.