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

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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