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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It's Gary Lineker 1, the Sun 0

The football hero has found himself at the heart of a Twitter storm over the refugee children debate.

The Mole wonders what sort of topsy-turvy universe we now live in where Gary Lineker is suddenly being called a “political activist” by a Conservative MP? Our favourite big-eared football pundit has found himself in a war of words with the Sun newspaper after wading into the controversy over the age of the refugee children granted entry into Britain from Calais.

Pictures published earlier this week in the right-wing press prompted speculation over the migrants' “true age”, and a Tory MP even went as far as suggesting that these children should have their age verified by dental X-rays. All of which leaves your poor Mole with a deeply furrowed brow. But luckily the British Dental Association was on hand to condemn the idea as unethical, inaccurate and inappropriate. Phew. Thank God for dentists.

Back to old Big Ears, sorry, Saint Gary, who on Wednesday tweeted his outrage over the Murdoch-owned newspaper’s scaremongering coverage of the story. He smacked down the ex-English Defence League leader, Tommy Robinson, in a single tweet, calling him a “racist idiot”, and went on to defend his right to express his opinions freely on his feed.

The Sun hit back in traditional form, calling for Lineker to be ousted from his job as host of the BBC’s Match of the Day. The headline they chose? “Out on his ears”, of course, referring to the sporting hero’s most notable assets. In the article, the tabloid lays into Lineker, branding him a “leftie luvvie” and “jug-eared”. The article attacked him for describing those querying the age of the young migrants as “hideously racist” and suggested he had breached BBC guidelines on impartiality.

All of which has prompted calls for a boycott of the Sun and an outpouring of support for Lineker on Twitter. His fellow football hero Stan Collymore waded in, tweeting that he was on “Team Lineker”. Leading the charge against the Murdoch-owned title was the close ally of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and former Channel 4 News economics editor, Paul Mason, who tweeted:

Lineker, who is not accustomed to finding himself at the centre of such highly politicised arguments on social media, responded with typical good humour, saying he had received a bit of a “spanking”.

All of which leaves the Mole with renewed respect for Lineker and an uncharacteristic desire to watch this weekend’s Match of the Day to see if any trace of his new activist persona might surface.


I'm a mole, innit.