David Cameron making a speech about NHS reforms at University College Hospital in June 7, 2011 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why the Tories have stopped talking about the NHS

Election strategist Lynton Crosby has warned them that it helps Labour, which has a double-digit lead on the issue.

In his first speech to the Conservative conference as leader, David Cameron declared that while it took Tony Blair three words to sum up his priorities ("Education, education, education"), he could do it in three letters: "N-H-S". But there was no mention of the health service in the Queen's Speech. Indeed, the Tories have had little to say on the subject at all recently. 

I'm told that there is a precise reason for this: Lynton Crosby has ordered them not to. Recent polling by the Conservative election strategist has shown that the Tories continue to trail Labour by a double-digit margin on the issue, despite a concerted effort to pin the blame for the Mid-Staffs scandal on the opposition and shadow health secretary Andy Burnham. The Tories' fateful decision to break their promise to end the "top-down reorganisation" of the NHS means that they have lost the ground they gained in opposition, when they polled level with Labour. Such is the damage that the mere mention of the health service is now regarded as aiding Ed Miliband. 

In his speech at last year's Conservative conference, Cameron said: "Some people said the NHS wasn't safe in our hands. Well - we knew otherwise. Who protected spending on the NHS? Not Labour - us. Who started the Cancer Drugs Fund? Not Labour - us. And by the way - who presided over Mid Staffs? Patients left for so long without water, they were drinking out of dirty vases...people's grandparents lying filthy and unwashed for days. Who allowed that to happen? Yes, it was Labour...and don't you dare lecture anyone on the NHS again." 

But don't expect to see a similar passage in this year's pre-election address. One of Crosby's most consistent pieces of advice to the Tories is "not to play on Labour's side of the pitch". This means talking about issues on which the party is strong, such as the economy, immigration and welfare, and avoiding those on which it is weak, such as the NHS, child poverty and the environment. Cameron's decision to obey Crosby's edict marks the final abandonment of Conservative modernisation, under which the party sought to capture ground traditionally colonised by Labour. 

Miliband now has even more reason than before to ensure the NHS is one of the defining election issues. Recent polling by Lord Ashcroft has shown that the health service ranks level with immigration as the second most important policy area for voters after the economy. A radical offer on the NHS and social care, most likely to be unveiled at this year's Labour conference, will be crucial to the party's chances of victory. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.