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.