Ambulances are seen at the Accident and Emergency department of St. Thomas' Hospital in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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We need to talk about the NHS - Cameron must break the Crosby-imposed silence

If the Tories won't face up to the problems in the health service, it's time to make way for a government that will.

David Cameron used to say that his priority could be summed up in three letters: NHS. Now, it seems, he prefers not to talk about it. The word in Westminster is that, on the advice of Lynton Crosby, the Prime Minister has asked his ministers for a period of pre-election silence on the NHS. So the Queen's Speech came and went without even a mention of Mr Cameron's erstwhile priority.

The list of reasons why Mr Cameron no longer wants to talk about the NHS is growing longer by the day. The last week has brought a stream of statistics confirming what many people suspect: the NHS is heading downhill under his government.

First, we learnt that the NHS missed its cancer treatment standard for the first time, leaving a growing number of people waiting longer for the start of treatment and families facing prolonged anguish.

Then, on Wednesday, came news that the deterioration in cancer care was worse than we thought and extended to people with suspected cancers waiting for tests. Waiting times for diagnostic tests are at a six-year high, with 17,000 waiting longer than they should.

Thursday brought the news that the number of people on NHS waiting lists had gone past the three million mark for the first time in six years - highly embarrassing for a Prime Minister who once said that the test of his NHS re-organisation would be its effect on waiting times.

Finally, it was revealed on Friday that A&E departments across the country are in the grip of a summer crisis, with record numbers attending and tens of thousands waiting too long to be seen. The NHS overall has now missed its A&E target for five weeks running; more worryingly, hospital A&Es have not hit it 47 weeks.

A&E is the barometer of the whole health and care system. This barometer is now clearly warning us that there are severe storms ahead for the NHS unless urgent steps are taken to put it back on track. Perhaps this explains why, after a run of negative statistics, there were reports that the government had resorted to panic measures to shore up England's hospitals.

Without any great announcement, or even so much as a press release, it emerged that large amounts of money are to be thrown at the NHS in a bid to keep further bad headlines at bay. It is not clear what the government has decided because of the lack of a clear statement. Some newspaper reports this weekend said £650m in "new money" had been found, while others believe it to be £250m. Whatever the amount, what is clear is that is that is unprecedented for a Prime Minister to have to throw millions at a summer A&E crisis. What is also clear is that, right now, the NHS is in a very dangerous position. All the signs show that it is slipping into a serious condition but it has a government in charge that is not prepared to talk about it. This is not good enough.

Minsters cannot be allowed to take such significant decisions without any explanation of why they are doing it or where the money is coming from. Cameron must order his ministers to come to the Commons early this week to answer these points.

Beyond that, there must now be a proper debate about what is happening in the NHS, why it is going wrong and what must be done to put it right. The reason why David Cameron is so desperate to avoid this debate at all costs is because it brings him back to his biggest misjudgement as Prime Minister: allowing Andrew Lansley to proceed with his ill-considered reorganisation. He was explicitly warned it would damage standards of patient care - and it has. Throwing money at the problems of his own making is no long-term solution for the NHS he has so disastrously destabilised.

David Cameron's great problem is that, though he thinks he can keep things quiet with a few bungs here and there, the public can see for themselves what is happening. They know it has for much harder to get a GP appointments. They are hearing the stories of friends and family being told that they can't have the treatment they need and facing the agonising choice of waiting in discomfort or paying to go private.

The voters are on to Mr Cameron and his damage to the NHS. Worryingly for him, a poll this week found that, for the first time in a long time, the NHS has risen to the top of voters' concerns. Storm clouds are gathering over the NHS, but it is trapped in a situation where the government of the day is not prepared to discuss them. This won't do. If they won't face up to the problems in the NHS, it's time to make way for a government that will.

Andy Burnham is the shadow health secretary

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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