Same old Tories? The public turns against NHS reform

The health bill could spell serious trouble for the Conservatives, as a poll shows declining support

If you were in any doubt about how damaging the continued controversy over the NHS bill could be for the Conservatives, look no further than the Guardian/ICM poll out today.

The topline figures are typical: the Tories are on 36 (despite opening up a five point lead in the Guardian's poll last month), Labour are up two on last month at 37, while the Liberal Democrats are at 14. These results mirror those in the Populus/Times poll, also out today, which puts the Tories on 37, Labour on 39, and the Liberal Democrats on 11.

It certainly jumps out that the Tories have lost four percentage points in a single month in the ICM poll, although it looks as if that five-point lead was an outlier. The really interesting findings are on the NHS.

An outright majority of respondents -- 52 per cent -- believe that the health bill should be scrapped. Just 33 per cent believe that at this stage it is better to persevere with the reform, meaning that there is a 19 point margin in favour of axing the bill. This is reasonably consistent across social classes, gender, and regions.

While Conservative voters are more likely to support the bill, worryingly for David Cameron, a third of them (31 per cent) would like it to be scrapped. A significant majority of Liberal Democrats -- 57 per cent -- want it shelved. The issue is set to dominate the party's spring conference next month, for the second year running.

Perhaps this is hardly surprising. Yesterday saw a raft of negative headlines about NHS reform, as Cameron excluded health professionals who oppose the bill from a special Downing Street summit and an angry pensioner berated Andrew Lansley in front of TV cameras. Meanwhile, an e-petition calling for the bill to be dropped has amassed over 150,000 signatures.

Amid this growing opposition to the bill, it appears that the role of the private sector in healthcare is actually becoming more controversial than it used to be. Respondents were reminded that private companies already provide some NHS treatments, but 53 per cent still said that competition of this kind undermines the health service, while just 39 per cent believed it would result in higher standards. When ICM asked a similar question in September 2005, the public was more evenly divided, with 48 per cent endorsing more private involvement and 49 per cent opposing it.

There is growing concern amongst Conservatives that the healthcare bill could seriously undermine their chances at the next election and undo Cameron's hard work on detoxifying the Tory brand. The influential website ConservativeHome called for it to be scrapped earlier this month.
Today's poll appears to confirm that damage to public standing: 40 per cent of respondents said they did not trust the Conservatives "at all" to run the health service (compared with 31 per cent in October 2006, a year into Cameron's leadership). Meanwhile, just 25 per cent said they did not trust Labour "at all", down from 32 per cent in 2006.

As the Prime Minister personally throws his weight behind pushing the legislation through, there is a clear opportunity for Labour to capitalise on this loss of trust. Whether they will successfully turn this into a significant poll lead remains to be seen.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's half-hearted "reset" is not enough to win back voters to the SNP

Election campaigners report that the doorstep feedback suggests the First Minister is now seen as aloof, with little interest in the average voter’s concerns.

In Scots law, under a charge of robbery, theft, breach of trust, embezzlement, falsehood, fraud or wilful imposition, the accused may be convicted of "reset". It’s not clear which of these particular terms Nicola Sturgeon had in mind this week when she used that word to describe her reformed plans for a second independence referendum. Fraud seems a little too strong. Breach of trust or wilful imposition are perhaps closer to the mark.

It’s been many, many years since the SNP has seemed this unsure of its footing. Fair enough: who in politics isn’t, these days? But the slow-motion car crash that is Scotland’s governing party deserves a prime-time slot all of its own. "The SNP has squandered what was an extraordinarily strong position," says a thoughtful observer from the opposition benches.

If Sturgeon’s authority hasn’t gone – and she continues to rule Scotland’s most popular mainstream party, both at Holyrood and Westminster – it has undeniably taken a shellacking. The aura of invincibility that surrounded the First Minister’s early years in power is no more, both within and without the SNP. "What struck me as she announced her 'reset' was that a woman who was often listened to in respectful silence in the past found herself being shouted at by Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories," says a source. "There was giggling and mockery, which is new. She seemed diminished."

My own judgement is that the reset proposal, which amounts to little more than extending the deadline for a second indyref by six months to a year, will do almost nothing to woo back the half-million voters who deserted the Nats between the 2015 and 2017 general elections. In my experience, these people don’t want the referendum delayed for six months, they want it off the table. They also want the SNP to shut up about it, and they want to see the public services and the economy given full attention. That is the challenge they have set the First Minister in the four years left of this Holyrood parliament. In an enlightening article in the Guardian this week, Severin Carrell quotes voters from the "Tartan Tory" areas that recently unseated Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson. "Fed up with the SNP, simple as."

Fed up. Sturgeon’s greatest error – a charge levelled by internal critics – was to force and win a vote at Holyrood on the holding of another referendum, after the Brexit decision but before Article 50 was triggered. In the minds of voters already worried about leaving the EU and looking for what we might call strong and stable leadership, this merely confirmed the SNP’s monomania: that it saw literally everything as a pretext for independence. The step looked cynical, it looked rushed, it looked, well, desperate.

To be fair to the First Minister, she was playing a double game. Obviously, she supports breaking up the UK and needs to continually feed the beast that is the separatist movement, but she also hoped the looming threat of another referendum would give her leverage as the UK negotiated Brexit, perhaps to secure a distinct deal of some kind for Scotland. She was wrong. "Theresa May would show up for meetings with the various leaders of the UK’s nations, read from a script and then refuse to take questions," says an SNP insider. "The whole thing has been a shambles. The British government just isn’t interested."

This deliberate mutual misunderstanding is a problem not just for the SNP, but for the smooth running of the UK. Pre-devolution, a deal such as that struck with the DUP would have been discussed in Cabinet where powerful Scottish and Welsh secretaries would demand and usually emerge with some goodies for back home. Now, each nation is run by a different tribe, the relationships are oppositional and antagonistic, and no side wants to make things easier for the other. Britain has stopped talking to itself, and stopped trading with itself. We have spiralled off into our own mini-cultures, which often bear little resemblance to each other.

Ultimately, though, Sturgeon looks like the author of her own misfortune. Her tone in Holyrood as she announced the ‘reset’ was unapologetic and belligerent. There was no real humility or admission of error, and no sense that an indyref was in any way off the table. Election campaigners report that the doorstep feedback suggests she is now seen as aloof, with little interest in the average voter’s day-to-day concerns or in listening to them. Her team seem unable or unwilling to absorb this. "They’re still pushing far too hard," says one Tory source. "The only way I can make sense of it is that they’re playing it like a poker hand. They’ve come too far and feel they have no choice but to go all-in. But it’s a losing hand."

There are only two routes I can see that might, perhaps, make something of a difference. The first is a comprehensive reshuffle that brings some of the smarter, younger MSPs into the government. Many of them, as newcomers to the cause, speak differently about independence and their reasons for joining the SNP than do the generation of Sturgeon, Salmond, John Swinney and Mike Russell.

The second is to return to the debate about devo max or federalism. Again, in conversation with the new generation of Nats you are more likely to discuss these options. A number of them are technocrats who have a view of the way Scotland should be governed. They might see independence as the best way to achieve this, but they are also open to a looser relationship within the UK, one that might involve greater powers around taxation, spending and borrowing. With every UK region outside London running a chunky deficit, Scotland could set its own deficit-reduction target and develop a plan to get there. Not only would that be good for the UK economy, it would also allow the SNP to demonstrate that a separate state could work - and indeed, would work.

In short, the SNP will not whine its way to independence. Its best option now is to do what the Scottish people are asking it to do: make a better job of running the place, and stop talking about independence for a while. First, though, that requires the party to listen.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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