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24 October 2014

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.

By Owen Smith

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?

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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