The first thing to say about the news that Rishi Sunak is registered with a private GP practice is that this might actually be the least shocking thing to happen in British politics this year. With a fortune, along with his wife, estimated at £730m, Sunak is one of the richest men ever to serve as prime minister. And for all the metropolitan liberal vibes that seem, strangely, to attach to the man, he’s been incredibly consistent in his support for right-wing economic ideas like a small state, individual responsibility and rich people being better than the rest of us.
So what did you expect? Of course he’s not ringing his NHS GP practice at 8.01am on a Tuesday like the rest of us, hoping against hope there’s a slot in the next fortnight to talk about that cough. What’s next? “Exclusive: Papal religion mystery solved”? “Arboreal ursine defecation sites located after decades-long search”?
That this was predictable, though, doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem. For one thing, like the bacon sandwich photo which (unfairly) made Ed Miliband look weird, or the Downing Street parties which (entirely fairly) showed Boris Johnson as callous, it’s the sort of thing that could crystallise concerns that the voters already have. Like his inability to use a cash card, or the fact he had to borrow a car to fill with petrol because his own was too nice for the photographs, Sunak’s decision to avoid the NHS the rest of us use could easily become a symbol of just quite how far his lifestyle actually is from the electorate’s.
Then there’s the fact he is inevitably going to get questions about all this, and just as inevitably look peevish when he answers them. Having become chancellor because of Sajid Javid’s sudden resignation, and grown popular by handing out money, Sunak has only ever played politics on the lowest of difficulty settings. One of his biggest problems during last summer’s Conservative leadership campaign was his inability to hide his irritation whenever anyone asked him a question; that veered uncomfortably close to anger when the person asking was a woman. There must be a chance the next few days will produce a clip so bad it’ll be popping up in Labour ads from now until doomsday.
Perhaps the most damning thing about this story, though, is the detail in the Guardian‘s report of what Sunak’s private West London clinic actually offers. It promises evening or weekend appointments, true, but the real selling point is the guarantee that patients with urgent health concerns will be seen “on the day”, for the low, low price of £250 per half hour.
When the last Labour government left office in 2010, that was a level of service that we all expected, and if it wasn’t always honoured neither did it feel implausibly out of reach. Evening and weekend services were discussed, too, although the GP workforce not unreasonably pointed out that, if we wanted longer hours, the government would have to pay for them.
Now, though, waiting times run into weeks, rather than days, and if you want to be seen within hours your only option is to make like the Prime Minister and stump up the cash. The big problem for Sunak is not that he’s paying for healthcare. The problem is that 12 years of Tory government have made it necessary.