Last week, Ed Miliband came under a torrent of criticism for missing two open goals at PMQs. He managed to fail to take advantage of government U-turns on both the NHS and sentencing, partly because he tried to do both and partly because his own party wasn’t united, especially on sentencing.
This week, he played a cleverer game. By bringing up the issue of cancer patients losing out because of welfare reforms, he chose a topic that lots of people identify with, where the prime minister was unlikely to know the full facts and which could unite his own MPs.
It worked. When Miliband brought up the fact that cancer patients could suffer if they are moved on to time-limited employment support allowance, David Cameron was caught unawares. Miliband asked:
When the prime minister signed off on this bill did he know it would make 7,000 cancer patients worse off by £94 a week?
He was referring to a piece of research by Macmillan which warned that many patients recovering from cancer could be moved off benefits after 12 months unless they qualified for indefinite support, which is means tested.
At first the prime minister started answering about terminally ill patients, which as Miliband pointed out, is not the point: these people are in recovery.
Then he started claiming Miliband was “simply wrong on that specific point”. As far as we can tell from the Macmillan research, he was not wrong.
As the debate got more heated, with backbenchers piling in on both sides, (while the prime minister desperately flicked through his big book of notes), Cameron made a misstep, describing the issue as a “smokescreen” behind which Miliband could hide his party’s divisions on welfare reform. Showing a flash of passion – even anger – Miliband retorted that calling cancer patients a smokescreen was a “disgrace”.
Cameron took his cue to calm down the tone of the debate, although later crescendoed again, culminating in a scripted line about Miliband being the “weak leader of a divided opposition”, which wasn’t really relevant to the point at hand.
This is one of the few times Miliband has managed to get the PM onto the back foot, but there remains a serious problem for the Labour leader. As Cameron pointed out on several occasions, Labour intends to vote against the welfare reform bill on Wednesday night. That gives the government an ideal opportunity to paint the opposition as “soft on scroungers”. Whether it is a fair attack or not, it is one that is likely to resonate with the public.
UPDATE: It is not only Macmillan which has raised the issue but also another 29 charities which recently signed a letter to the Guardian criticising the cut.