The NHS is toxic for the Tories and they know it

An increasing number of Conservative MPs are starting to think the unloved health reforms ought some

David Cameron was rattled in the Commons today by an attack on his health reforms - and with good reason. The NHS reorganisation is a disaster on many fronts. It is unloved by doctors, poorly understood by the public and, after a series of mangling amendments in parliament, barely even resembles the vision first outlined by Health Secretary Andrew Lansley. The likeliest outcome from the whole thing is protracted chaos and worse services. This time it will be very hard for the Tories to blame the mess on Labour's legacy.

Opinion polls traditionally show Labour well ahead of Conservatives in terms of who is trusted to look after the NHS. Crucially for Ed Miliband, this is also an issue that is personally associated with David Cameron. The pledge to avoid "top down reorganisations" came from Conservative leader's lips. So did the promise to protect health spending in real terms. That will be very hard to achieve even if inflation comes down - at least not without imposing harsher cuts elsewhere. The Labour front bench think the NHS is one policy area where they might be able to puncture Cameron's famous Teflon coating. I have even heard it said by MPs, and not just from Labour ones, that the NHS alone could cost the Tories a majority at the next election

Crucially, Tory MPs are starting to get worried. They are as baffled as anyone else as to how the government got itself into this mess. Questions are increasingly being asked about Lansley's future. It is recognised that he would have to resign if the reforms were shelved. That is hard to do in practice because some of the structural changes are already under way. But as an exercise in political damage limitation it might still be worth slamming on the brakes and, if need be, losing Lansley. Very senior Tories recognise now that the NHS is their point of greatest vulnerability. So much so, in fact, that one source familiar with the Prime Minister's feelings about the subject recently told me Downing Street wished the Lib Dems had killed the thing off last year instead of insisting on a legislative "pause".

Back then Nick Clegg didn't want to be seen to be too obstructive. The Lib Dem priority was still being seen to make coalition work. With hindsight, Clegg's team now say they should have been bolshier and insisted that the NHS reforms be dropped. It is testimony to how politically toxic the whole thing has come that an increasing number of Tories on front and back benches agree.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

0800 7318496