Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Spotlight
  2. Elections
18 September 2019updated 19 Sep 2019 10:32am

What does, and doesn’t, matter about the father who confronted Boris Johnson in a hospital

What matters is whether his criticism is correct or not – not what his politics are. 

By Stephen Bush

The father of a seven-day-old baby has gone viral after confronting Boris Johnson while he was visiting a NHS hospital, criticising the Prime Minister for the standard of the care received by his child.

The story has moved on – away from the confrontation, and towards the fact that the father happens to be a Labour activist.  But it feels to me that we’re in danger of missing the real point.

It feels very close to the so-called “War of Jennifer’s Ear”, the row that erupted over a Labour Party election broadcast about the effects of 13 years of Conservative rule on the NHS in 1992. The advert was based loosely on the operation of a girl whose father, John Bennett, had written to Robin Cook, then Labour’s shadow health secretary.

But the consultant in charge of the operation, who had blamed under-funding in a letter to the Bennett family before the advert came out, U-turned once the broadcast had aired. To make matters worse, Jennifer’s mother and grandmother denounced the broadcast, saying that it was inaccurate.

As it happens, Jennifer’s mother and grandmother were both Conservatives. But that didn’t change the fact that Labour were bang to rights – they hadn’t researched the case in detail and their broadcast may well have contained misleading information. (The rights and wrongs of who in the Labour Party got it wrong are still disputed.)

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

The materially important point now is: did this bloke’s baby receive adequate treatment? Not: is this bloke’s anger at the government different because he is a member of a political party? Not least because – and this is not particularly surprising – people who are angry about a particular policy often tend to be or to become politically engaged and to vote against the architects of that policy instead.

In 1999, Kidderminster residents were angry about New Labour’s decision to shut down parts of their local hospital. As a result, they formed the Independent Kidderminster Hospital and Health Concern Party, and successfully elected Richard Taylor, an independent MP, as well as controlling the local authority for some time.

It may well be that New Labour was entirely correct to think that Wyre Forest’s health needs were perfectly well-served by axing some of Kidderminster’s services. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on healthcare policy in 2000. But the fact of Kidderminster residents’ anger didn’t become any more or less valid, or any more or less politically salient, simply because they formed a political party to oppose him.

Nor did Michelle Dorrell’s anger at the cuts to her tax credits – Dorrell, who voted Conservative in 2015, went viral after attacking Amber Rudd on Question Time over the issue – become less valid because she subsequently became politically motivated to the point of joining the Labour Party. The British government was in fact cutting her tax credits and it was in fact a politically painful moment for the government.

A great number of Remain-backing socially liberal people who voted Tory in the past have now joined the Liberal Democrats – I have had a lot of lovely conversations with people like that. We are, in fact, still leaving the EU and voter rage at it is still a politically difficult problem for both major political parties. Brexit didn’t become a better, or a worse idea as a result

And since Jeremy Corbyn became leader, a number of Jewish people have publicly criticised him for his handling of Labour anti-Semitism: some of them did so while being members of other political parties and others became so later. Their anger didn’t become more or less legitimate as a result.

In all these cases, the relevant question isn’t: are these people politically motivated? It’s: are they right? It may well be that this child received perfectly adequate care and a nervous first-time father was worrying about nothing. That’s the important question – not whether or not the person complaining is sufficiently irate about it to join their opponents.