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The NHS is becoming an ever-bigger headache for the Tories

Labour stands to gain if the crisis in the health service becomes one of the major election themes. 

Labour stands to gain if the crisis in the health service becomes one of the major election themes.
David Cameron delivers a speech on NHS reform at University College Hospital on June 7, 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.

One of Labour's priorities for the summer is raising the salience of the NHS, the issue on which it enjoys its largest poll lead. "After living standards, we need it [the NHS] to be voters’ priority," a strategist told me. If one of the defining questions of the election is "which party do I trust to run the health service?" Labour's chances of victory will be improved.  

It is encouraging for the party, then, that both the Sun and the Times splash on the growing NHS crisis today. The former carries an investigation warning of record A&E waiting times and longer waits for GPs, while the latter reports that one in nine people trying to see a doctor cannot get an appointment, with GPs turning patients away more than 40 million times this year.

The Tories have long regarded the NHS as the dog that hasn't barked, boasting that the oft-predicted "winter crisis" never came. But the dog is certainly barking now. Worse, the party's "top-down reorganisation" of the health service (for which, it should not be forgotten, it had no mandate. Indeed, it had a mandate not to introduce one) means Labour can easily lay the blame at the Conservatives' door. 

Having once aspired to establish themselves as "the party of the NHS", the Tories are now narrowly focused on neutralising the issue. As I've previously reported, Lynton Crosby has told ministers not to mention it on the grounds that it helps Labour. 

In his speech at last year's Conservative conference, David 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 deficit, immigration and welfare, and avoiding those on which it is weak.

Some Tories believe they can repel the opposition’s assault by deriding the state of the service in Labour-run Wales. But Ed Miliband has adopted a new riposte to this attack: Cameron wants to talk about Wales because he cannot defend his record in England. The disparity in performance between the two countries has narrowed as the health service has deteriorated under the coalition.

But Labour will be able to dwell on this issue for only so long before it is forced to confront a funding gap of £30bn by the end of the next parliament. Stephen Dorrell, the former health secretary, Sarah Wollaston, the new chair of the health select committee, and Frank Field, the former social security minister, all warn that the NHS will not survive in its present form without a real-terms increase in spending. Demographic pressures, the rising cost of technology and the growth in chronic conditions are such that merely ring-fencing the service from cuts will not do. 

One of the biggest questions facing Labour before the election, then, is whether, and how, to promise an increase in health spending. 

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