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.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.