The Tories are waking up to the fact that no one trusts them on the NHS. Photo: Getty
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Why David Cameron's political point-scoring on the Welsh NHS won't wash

The Daily Mail and Prime Minister peddling myths about the Welsh NHS won't work in their favour.

Even by its own historically shameless standards, the Daily Mail has had a week to forget.

The paper’s week-long “exposé” of the Welsh NHS has actually managed to expose just two things, both of which we already knew. One, they print what the Tories ask them to print and, two, David Cameron is running scared of his record on the NHS in England. 

Today was down in the Daily Mail’s diary as the climax to their Crosby-inspired campaign. Day five of five, the killer blow, another front-page splash to peddle Tory lies about the Welsh NHS and divert attention from the crisis facing the health service in England.

Except, something’s not quite right: a quick glance at the Mail’s front page and Wales is nowhere to be seen. Dig deeper (if you can stomach it) – through the nonsense, the scare-mongering and another abhorrent attack on Ed Miliband’s dad – and you’ll see we haven’t just been knocked off the front-page, we’ve been relegated as far down as page 21.

So, why such a flat finale to this orchestration of Tory spin?

I’d suggest two simple reasons: the effective rebuttal from the Welsh government – fully armed with statistics and data to unmask Mail myths – and the Tories in Westminster waking up to the fact no one trusts them on the NHS – and the more they talk about it, the less still they’re trusted.

At every turn, Wales’ health minister Mark Drakeford has been one step ahead of the Daily Mail, in some cases batting back charges from the Tory rag before they’ve even been thrown.

On today’s offensive – cancer care – Mark and I, and numerous others, have already let it be known that Wales outperforms England (90 per cent start treatment within 62 days in Wales; just 84 per cent in England do), so the paper’s lie was put to bed before it was even put to print.

But, suffice to say, the truth has never got in the way of a good story for the Daily Mail, which would suggest there’s a second, more strategic, reason the paper has wound its neck in.

Namely, that when David Cameron runs down the Welsh NHS to political point-score, who exactly does he think his audience is? 

People in Wales certainly aren’t going to listen to a Tory on the NHS: they remember all too vividly the destruction and decay the Thatcher and Major governments left our public services in.

Meanwhile, voters in England rightly want the Prime Minister to talk about the English health service; they know all too well, that when Cameron obfuscates and talks about Wales, he’s avoiding the question and running away from his own record.

So I hope that when Lynton Crosby considers the fate of his and the Mail’s failed campaign, his advice to the Prime Minister is along the following lines:   

Keep talking about the Welsh NHS, keep reminding people in Wales how far we’ve come from the days of Tory neglect where patients were waiting over two years for straightforward operations.

And keep shying away from your record in England too: your wasteful top-down re-organisation, a million English patients waiting over 4 hours and the worst year in A&E for over a decade.

Lastly, I’ve lost track of the exact number of times you’ve mentioned the Welsh NHS at PMQs – it’s around 40, give or take a slander or two – but try reaching 100 before the election comes and see how voters in both England and Wales feel about it.

Owen Smith MP is shadow secretary of state for Wales

Owen Smith is Labour MP for Pontypridd and Shadow Secretary of State for Work & Pensions.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue