Rishi Sunak revealed at PMQs today that he is in fact registered with an NHS GP. That’s only worth reporting because for the past three days the government has failed to clarify the point. The issue arose after Sunak was asked whether he had one on Laura Kuenssberg’s Sunday politics show on the BBC.
Four times he failed to answer. Kuenssberg even pointed to Margaret Thatcher’s openness about her private health insurance during the 1987 general election campaign. “I exercise my right as a free citizen to spend my own money in my own way,” Thatcher said, “so that I can go in on the day, at the time, with the doctor I choose and get out fast.”
Sunak was keen to address the issue at the start of PMQs, albeit without Thatcher’s directness. That was wise: I’m going to put myself out on a limb and say that a debate over whether the PM even uses the NHS is not a good look when the NHS is nearing collapse. Why Downing Street didn’t clarify this earlier when the story was clearly going to gain momentum is a question for Sunak’s communications team – particularly when his appeals to privacy were reminiscent of the way he handled the furore surrounding his wife’s non-dom tax status last year. Which didn’t go well. In any case, you can be registered with a private health provider and be registered with an NHS GP. So the question persists.
And all of that before Keir Starmer even got to his feet. With his six questions the Labour leader sought to contrast the state of the NHS under the Conservatives with the NHS they inherited from Labour. This is a smart move: everyone over the age of 30, say, will have a pretty clear memory of the NHS being in better shape back in 2010. Linking the present crisis with almost 13 years of Conservative rule has proved tricky in the past because the government could point to Covid. But with coronavirus receding from people’s political memory, specific comparisons could now prove fruitful. As Starmer said: “1.4 million people waited more than four weeks for a GP appointment. When Labour left government, you were guaranteed an appointment in two days. When does the Prime Minister expect to get back to that?”
Starmer’s second aim was to point out the vacuity of Sunak’s New Year’s promises, which included getting waiting lists down. Starmer said: “[the Prime Minister’s] promised that one day – though he can’t say when – their record-high waiting lists will stop growing. That’s it, after 13 years in government.”
This is an important tactic for Labour. Sunak’s New Year’s speech was full of promises either easily achieved or too vague to be scrutinised. That gives him the leeway to later claim he has addressed the issues the country cares about. Exposing those promises for what they are will prevent that narrative from taking hold.