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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.