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. 

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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