Wednesday 15 June 2011

A win for one, but not a defeat for the other...

There’s always a gaggle of hacks around Gabby Bertin after PMQs, but today it expanded into a swarm that surrounded the Prime Minister’s spokeswoman.

That almost all the questions were about cancer patients’ stood testament to Ed Miliband’s fighting performance at PMQs, in which he managed to successfully dictate the course of the session. He chose a subject that was incredibly difficult for the PM to argue against, stuck to his lines and even improvised to make jeering Tory MPs look like the nasty party.

But while Cameron failed to turn the debate to questions around the Labour leadership, it is difficult to say he was “defeated” as such.

It is always hard to defeat an opponent at PMQs on the technicalities of a policy. And as long as Cameron puts his side of the technical argument forward while looking confident and without saying anything that cuts his wiggle room later, as he appeared to today, it will be difficult for Miliband to impose outright defeat – which broadly defined is when a leader embarrasses his opponent.

There may be people out there who don’t like that classification of defeat, who think it should be defined in terms of whether a person’s argument is more factual than their opponent’s.

But, right or wrong, PMQs doesn’t work like that. Victory in the bear-pit is a more visceral thing – a feeling of who came out on top.

There is another deeper issue here too. While more accomplished Miliband performances based on complaining about particular cuts, like today’s, will see the Labour leader cement his position and put pressure on the Government, they still come back to the argument on the economy.

That debate was won months ago after the Government managed to convince the country there was a big deficit and that cuts were necessary.

If it wants to argue against cuts Labour will still have to purge those demons wailing that they were in charge when the deficit was built and will have to be more specific about cuts they would make in the future.

For now though I don’t think Labour backbenchers will begrudge their leader a day to appreciate a much improved performance.

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Cranky Dr shouts at PM's media circus...

Hat tip Paul Waugh

"Massive Deficit" at 16/1

Bookie Paddy Power has launched a new weekly Prime Minister's Questions betting market called the PMQs Punt which allows people to bet on the first phrase/cliché to be uttered by the PM during his Wednesday grilling.

This week “David Miliband”, “plotting against your brother” and “soap opera” are all in the running to be the first retort from the PM at 12/1, with “brotherly love” at 8/1 and “bitter feud” at 6s.

Of the agenda-led phrases “National Health Service reform” is favourite at 4/1 with “vaccine” and “IMF” both at 6/1. Meanwhile “Big Society” is 8/1 to be the first phrase heard from the list.

The full list follows – I reckon “Massive Deficit” at 16/1 isn’t a bad shout.

4/1 NHS reform/National Health Service reform
6/1 Bitter feud
6/1 Vaccine/vaccines
6/1 IMF/International Monetary Fund
8/1 Brotherly Love
8/1 Boardroom pay
8/1 Big Society
9/1 Libya
10/1 Benefits cap
10/1 U-turn
12/1 David Miliband
12/1 Plotting against your brother
12/1 Soap opera
16/1 Massive deficit
20/1 Labour's mess
25/1 I love the NHS/I love the National Health Service
25/1 Superinjunction
25/1 We're in this together
25/1 Victims of crime
66/1 Hug a hoodie

Post-code lottery on MS drug...

There are some interesting figures out today showing the post-code lottery that constitutes the prescription of Sativex, the drug for multiple sclerosis patients.

The medicine, derived from cannabis, is administered as an oral spray and is used to alleviate pain and other distressing symptoms (more info here).

The Department of Health figures show that 128 out of 152 primary care trusts (PCTs) prescribed the drug between August 2010 and March 2011.

But out of those, 45 PCTs prescribed less than five items of Sativex in the entire period. Meanwhile the likes of Cumbria Teaching PCT prescribed 68 items and Hampshire, 70 items.

Many PCTs say the drug, which costs £11 a day, is not worth the costs, though doctors claim it’s the only medicine that can help some people.

Financial challenges facing the NHS are bound to exacerbate the situation.

Monday 13 June 2011

Miliband's tittle tattle

AS a woman from the audience at Ed’s press conference rambled on, the Labour Leader’s eyes lamented that he’d needed to ask “normal people” for questions.

But he had needed to. He knew that if “normal people”, most of whom I imagine were Labour inclined, were not there to ask about “issues” then he would have only got questions on his leadership and the party’s direction (or lack of it) from scheming journalists.

From the start of the Q and A session Ed tried to show how much more important “normal people” and “issues” were to him, as opposed to journalists and Westminster “tittle-tattle” about whether he’s still going to be leader this time next year.

Such “tittle-tattle” isn’t relevant to people’s lives and the public aren’t interested in it, said Ed, twice reciting that old defence that was constantly trotted out by Gordon Brown before he went on to lose an election.

The problem is that while Ed may dismiss it as tittle-tattle, he knows that the speculation about his leadership is a serious problem. The public are interested in it to the extent that they will not vote for him if they don’t think the people closest to him have confidence in him.

Ed can say he only wants to talk about issues, the night sky, god and the universe – it won’t matter because the public won’t heed him, and journalists won’t stop asking questions, until concerns about his leadership are resolved.

They will linger unless Ed can prove himself to be an inspirational and captivating leader to the extent that it gives people something else to talk about.

It is not hacks, but an understanding among Labour MPs of that challenge, as well as a gnawing fear Ed’s not up to it, which is causing restlessness.