Nobody won today’s PMQs – that’s my verdict. Not because it was so close, so difficult to judge, so exceptionally high quality; instead, it’s because I can’t tell who was the greatest loser. Miliband fluffed up his interrogation on the NHS because he wasn’t aware of what his own team had said previously on the matter, and Cameron bluffed his way through questions without giving much of an answer. In an effort not to reward failure, I shall not reward either of them at all.
Conservative MP Julian Lewis asked Cameron about the sanctions that the Taliban will be warned of, should they help al-Qaeda resume control of Afghanistan after our exit in 2014. Cameron responded that with the continued British effort to assist Afghanistan (in training of the security forces and aid to the region), it would be less likely for Afghanistan to return to al-Qaeda control. Neither Cameron nor Lewis answered the more fundamental question: why should we trust the Taliban? This is the same organisation that just days ago bombed a US-Afghan airbase, killing four Afghan soldiers and injuring Nato troops – one of many such attacks. In August, the Taliban were responsible for the murder of 17 civilians in Afghanistan, who offended the Taliban by attending a party. The Taliban are not an organisation to be trusted, or tolerated, and if the outcome of British engagement in Afghanistan is that we are forced to trust one group of extremist terrorists not to assist another group of more-extreme terrorists, then we should see the entire Afghanistan operation for what it is: complete and utter failure. The Prime Minister, on behalf of the Government and the Opposition Leader, for his party’s previous decisions when in power, need to apologise for the lives that have been lost and the money that has been wasted, in order to push forward with an agenda that they had no intention of seeing through to success.
Ed Miliband took Cameron on over healthcare and the NHS – reminding the Prime Minister that the Conservative manifesto pledged health spending rises in real terms, and asking him to explain why this has not been the case. There seems to be discrepancy in the sources and statistics being presented on either side. Cameron explained that the ONS have demonstrated that an extra £0.1bn has been spent in real terms from 2010 to 2011. The UK Statistics Authority have said that this data is incorrect, and real spending has fallen. Only time will confirm whether this is the case or not, given the disagreement here – what was interesting was Cameron’s point on what Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham actually said on the matter. Having found the interview, it’s clear that Burnham conceded that the Government were spending more on healthcare in real terms (and condemned it because of the negative effects on other public provision areas) and that he wouldn’t have done so – he would have protected it in real terms, with no increase. Therefore, two things are clear: one, Labour has an entirely inconsistent view on what the Coalition are doing with the NHS and two, Labour were NEVER intending to increase spending in real terms on the NHS. That has been declared and stated in previous interviews; Miliband cannot paper over this crack. Labour’s position in Opposition has been characterised by a lack of commitment to particular policies or decisions; it’s ironic that Miliband wasn’t aware of one of the few decisions they enunciated to the public and didn’t think to check this with the Shadow Health Secretary before a spectacular own goal that Cameron gleefully pointed out.
Throughout the healthcare debacle, Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg sat behind Cameron making scissorhands at Labour, therein reinforcing his position as a serious and hard-working member of the Coalition team with such profound critical analysis.
On taxes, Cameron once again gloated about the higher tax rates they’ve forced the rich to pay. He pointed out to Miliband that the 50p tax actually reduced revenue and reminded him that the purpose of taxation was “raising money, not punishing success”. The hypocrisy of not wanting to “punish” success but boasting about how much money can be made from the wealthy was not lost on me. Nor was Miliband calling a tax cut a “big giveaway”. There is no giveaway in a tax cut. A giveaway is where someone gives something to someone else, for free. Government revenue is returned to the people who earned it, therefore, tax cuts do not meet the criteria for being called a “giveaway” – given as the money belonged to those people in the first place and all we’re doing is letting them keep it. Someone should buy Miliband a dictionary.
Of interest, is the fact that whether or not legislation comes in before the Duchess of Cambridge gives birth to permit female first-borns the right to ascend to the throne, it will apply to the child. In other words: there’s no nine-month rush to get the legislation through, and if a daughter is born, she will be able to become Queen even if she has a younger brother. Good news.
The final area of note was Adrian Bailey’s comment on student admissions. He pointed out the student admissions rates have fallen by 50,000 since the new fees came into place. He wanted the Government to explain how they would ensure universities like his local one (Wolverhampton) would not suffer a loss of student applications and consequently, places. Cameron, as usual, waffled through the answer, not really providing anything of interest to anybody listening. This is what he should have said: “No. This government will do nothing about student numbers. The previous administration pushed children into a system where the ultimate goal was a degree; it encouraged an ethos that judged children by their ability to become graduates and suggested that those who didn’t had not lived up to their potential. We don’t want every child to get a degree, because this government accepts that many individuals do not want, and are not suited, to higher education. We will not force individuals through a system that is not for their benefit, solely for the sake of the universities. If they do not improve their standards, quality of education and research, they won’t attract students who do want to study. It will weed out the good universities from the bad and ensure students get the best education possible. Fewer places, fewer students – and open access to university for anybody who wants to go – that’s what this government stands for.”
If Cameron had taken so principled a stand, and one that actually, much of the population and most of his MPs could have got behind him on, then he would have soared to victory. Unfortunately for Conservatives everywhere, this was not the case. And unfortunately for Labourites, their Leader wasn’t challenging enough on issues they could actually provide critical points on. The electorate should feel let down by the quality of the engagement on these matters: the bravado and rhetoric hides a serious lack of substance on both sides of the House.