PMQs sketch: The day Labour MPs got their mojo back
A primeval roar of hope from the opposition benches: this was the first time Labour MPs voiced a real appetite for 2015.
By Alex Stevenson Follow @alex__stevenson
It's taken Ed Miliband 18 months, but this week he achieved something he hasn't as Labour leader before: confidently predicted David Cameron's defeat at the next general election.
For the fourth week in a row the leader of the opposition raised the NHS in this week's prime minister's questions. His dogged pursuit of the coalition's ailing reforms has turned around his previously mediocre performances – but it wasn't until today that he conjured up the prospect of 2015.
It came at the climax of his questions on the health and social care bill. For once David Cameron's criticism that there is not much "substance" to Miliband's attacks was accurate. But this was not because Miliband is focusing on process, as the PM claims. It was because both sides have long ago exhausted the nuances of debate about the merits of competition and the other aspects of the coalition's reforms. This legislation has been around for over a year; there is, simply, nothing left to say which has not already been repeated.
In lieu of debate about policies the exchanges have instead descended into a list-a-thon, in which both sides play top trumps with the supporters of their arguments. Miliband is on strong ground here, as so many health organisations have resolutely turned their back against the bill. He even aped a favourite Cameron tactic, the audience participation gag. "Opposed!" Labour MPs chanted after Ed named one fed-up royal college. "Opposed!" after another. "Opposed! Opposed!" Cameron, aware he was on the receiving end, kept his head bowed low in his folder.
He was scrabbling around to conjure up his response. The PM, now well-practised at defending the indefensible, proved so efficient at counter-attacking from what seemed a hopeless position that Tory MPs bellowed their approval with gusto. It didn't matter that all these organisations were against the reforms, he argued, as the actual proportions of their members who had opposed the bill were so small. Just seven per cent of the Royal College of Physicians, for example. "I know that's enough for the unions to elect a leader of the Labour party, but that's about as far as it goes!" Conservative MPs loved this. "Mo-ore!" they yelled enthusiastically.
For some reason it always takes more to get Labour MPs shouting as enthusiastically as their Tory counterparts, which always skews hacks' assessments of the leaders' respective performances. So when Miliband did finally land his knockout blow against Cameron, the strength of the Labour cacophony was all the more impressive. After trying frustrated impatience, and regretful head-shaking, Miliband went for the jugular with uncharacteristic decisiveness. Looking Cameron squarely in the eye, he shouted: "Their support for the health bill is digging their own grave at the general election!"
Miliband has, in the past, shied away from raising the prospect of 2015. It is still over three years away, true, but this reluctance to address the coming contest has undoubtedly weakened his punch. Not today. The roar of enthusiasm with which Labour MPs greeted Miliband was nothing like we've seen so far in this parliament.
For perhaps the first time since 2010, it felt like the opposition has got its appetite for power back. Labour is ready to resume the fight for power once again, even if they have to wait until 2015 to be able to do so. The coalition's NHS reforms have achieved something, at least.