Jeremy Hunt delivers a speech during his visit with David Cameron to the Evelina London Children's Hospital on July 5, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The Tories' attacks on the Welsh NHS have been exposed as baseless

A new report calmly and authoritatively shows that there is no significant difference in the performance of the four UK health systems.

When David Cameron was first elected Prime Minister he came to Wales and pledged "a new respect" agenda, promising collaboration and partnership between the devolved Welsh Government and his own. Yesterday, he returned to Wales to address the dwindling band of Welsh Tory faithful at their annual conference and spectacularly broke that promise.

In a vitriolic speech that demeans the office of Prime Minister, Cameron described Offa's Dyke, the divide between England and Wales, as "a border between life and death".  Even the Western Mail (the Welsh daily once described by Nye Bevan as a Tory rag and the Coalowner's Gazette) marvels at language from the Prime Minister that would be more suitable "to describe a criminal atrocity or a natural disaster".  They concluded that "politically motivated scaremongering is intolerable...the battle for votes in England can never justify terrifying a grandmother in Wales on the eve of a hip operation."

Sadly, this sordid intervention by Cameron is a new low in a long campaign the Conservative Party have been orchestrating to smear the NHS in Wales. Jeremy Hunt did exactly the same in his conference speech yesterday and even the Secretary of State for Wales, David Jones, has been using any opportunity to whip up fear by criticising key Welsh public services. The Conservative chairman Grant Shapps even went as far as openly stating that his party were going to target Wales as part of their general election strategy.

But what is most galling and insulting about this grubby strategy of targeting the Welsh NHS is that it is unquestionably based on a lie. On the very day this speech was being made, leading health academics at the Nuffield Trust, published a report based on over a decade’s worth of data, which made it crystal clear that "no one country is emerging as a consistent front-runner on health system performance". 

In the face of Cameron’s claims of a crumbling NHS in Wales, the weighty report 'The four health systems of the UK: How do they compare?' calmly and authoritatively showed beyond question that while each of the four nations have particular strengths and weaknesses, none of them is consistently ahead. In doing so, the report dealt a significant blow to the Tory election strategy. Perhaps most importantly, it also points to the fact that "there have been significant improvements in the performance of the four UK health systems over the past two decades". Showing the Conservative claims of a health service in meltdown are groundless. The Tories’ fox has not only been shot, but stuffed and mounted as well.

The report does say – as with everywhere in the UK – that there are challenges to be addressed. Over the period it looked at, waiting times for certain procedures, such as knee operations, rose as austerity set in. But the latest information shows that the standard waiting time for an orthopaedic procedure in Wales is 15 weeks – this is less than the Welsh Government’s target of 26 weeks. This is despite Wales managing budget cuts from UK government of £1.7bn and the fact we have the oldest population of the four home nations.

Nevertheless, extra investments have been made since the period covered by the report to tackle waiting times, including an extra £63m for orthopaedic surgery, and overall health spending per head still remains higher in Wales than England – showing the Welsh Government’s commitment to the NHS. All Welsh Labour politicians realise that we are custodians for the NHS, the most treasured institution in Wales. Ours is the country and party of its founder Nye Bevan - no one is more proud of our NHS than the Welsh people. That is why it has been so galling to see the Prime Minister and others make attacks on the NHS in Wales, which have been proven beyond doubt to be groundless.

Yet for all their negativity, the Conservatives have had little positive breakthrough with the public.  A recent YouGov poll showed just 14 per cent of Welsh people trust the Tories with the NHS, perhaps too many of us remember when they were last in charge in Wales, with crumbling hospitals and people being forced to wait two years for operations. Far from genuine concern for the health of ordinary people, this smear campaign is a smokescreen to distract from David Cameron’s handling of the NHS in England where he has caused an A&E crisis and wasted £3bn on a pointless reorganisation.

So my message to the Tory high command is as clear as the Nuffield Trust’s report - if you want to fight the next election on the health service, be our guest.  Nationally, Labour saved a crumbling health service in 1997 and in Wales we continue to run an excellent and improving service, true to the NHS’s core values of putting people before profit.

Owen Smith is a Labour leadership candidate and MP for Pontypridd. 

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories