Ed Miliband has repeatedly failed to deny that he privately discussed "weaponising" the NHS for use as an election tactic as the general election nears.
In an excruciating exchange on BBC1''s Andrew Marr show, the Labour leader could only say that he did not remember what exactly he had said, and did not disown using the term, which David Cameron described last week as "disgusting".
He told Marr: "What I've said is I want to fight for the NHS. I don't recall exactly what I said, but we are in a fight for the National Health Service, and I make absolutely no apologies for the fact that I'm really concerned about what's happening to our National Health Service in this country.
"I don't recall exactly what I said, but what I'm clear about is we are in a fight for the NHS and I think that's really important. The Prime Minister went into the last general election and he said he could be trusted with the National Health Service. He has betrayed that trust with people. We've seen an NHS where we've seen tents erected in hospital car parks this week."
Challenged over whether he would disown the word "weaponise", the Labour leader said: "What I don't disown ... what I absolutely stand by is that we are in a fight for the future of the National Health Service and I don't think this is about the words we use, this is about how we are going to change this country so that we have an NHS that properly works for people again and isn't going backwards, as it is under this Government."
BBC political editor Nick Robinson later tweeted that Miliband "repeatedly didn't deny or disown" the term, while others mocked the Labour leader for his squirming.
If anyone doubted @Ed_Miliband spoke of "weaponising" NHS I think he cleared that up on Marr just now - repeatedly didn't deny or disown it— Nick Robinson (@bbcnickrobinson) January 11, 2015
Did @Ed_Miliband say he wanted to "weaponise" the NHS? "I don't recall," he tells Andrew Marr. Hmmm.— Harry Phibbs (@harryph) January 11, 2015
Better Ed Miliband interview than usual, but weak on "weaponise NHS" better to say it's wrong and mistake to say it #marr— Stuart Bruce (@stuartbruce) January 11, 2015
Cameron rebuked Miliband last Wednesday during Prime Minister's Questions, saying: "The Leader of the Opposition apparently said to the political editor of the BBC, 'I want to weaponise the NHS'. That is what he said, and I think that is disgraceful.
"The NHS is not a weapon, it is a way we care for our families, it is a way we care for the elderly, it is a way we look after the frail. Perhaps when he gets to his feet he will deny that he said he wanted to 'weaponise' the NHS - a disgusting thing to say."
Asked about Miliband's alleged comment, Labour health spokesman Andrew Gwynne told BBC1's Sunday Politics: "I've not heard him use the word 'weaponise'.
"I think it is absolutely right that Labour leads the fight for our NHS. Whatever word may or may not have been used, the issue is that the Labour Party will take every opportunity between now and May 7 not only to highlight what we believe are real failings under David Cameron on the NHS, but also to put forward our very positive vision."
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Pressure has been further ramped up on the Labour leader by reports in the Telegraph that he used the term "weaponise" in a meeting with 15 BBC executives about his plans last November.
Tory MP Dr Sarah Wollaston, chair of the Commons health select committee, said: "They are exploiting the huge pressures that A&E is under for political gain. It is less about genuinely arguing about systems and the best way forward, and more about a campaign to gain votes. I resent it deeply, it is wholly wrong and damaging for the political process.
"They are also exploiting people's fears that we are moving towards a US-style system where people have to pay. It's totally untrue. They are deliberately blurring what people fear about privatisation with the facts. If we see this continuing from now until May we are just going to see the public completely fed up with it."