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Leader: Daniel Hannan’s opinions on our health service are completely in keeping with the Tory mainstream

It is Labour - not the Conservatives - that is the party of the NHS. Ministers have found a chink in

''The National Health Service is the closest thing the English have to a religion," wrote the former Tory chancellor Nigel Lawson in his memoirs. In recent days, our political leaders have closed ranks to defend the faith from attack - on television, on radio, in print and even on the social networking site Twitter.

US Republicans and right-wing pundits had branded the NHS as "evil" and "Orwellian", and warned President Obama not to try to emulate our system of "socialised" care. One US business magazine even claimed that "people such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn't have a chance in the UK, where the NHS would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless". This prompted the professor, who is British and who has motor neurone disease, to declare: "I wouldn't be here today if it were not for the NHS."

Professor Hawking - whom many consider to be the cleverest man on the planet - is evidently at odds with the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, who, in a series of interviews on US television, added fuel to the fire by dismissing the NHS as a wartime relic and a "60-year mistake" that he would not wish "on anyone". Amid accusations from Labour that Mr Hannan (profiled on page 32) had been "unpatriotic" and that the Tories' "two faces" on the NHS had been exposed, David Cameron distanced himself from Mr Hannan's "eccentric" views", claiming that the Tories stood "four-square" behind the health service and that they were the "party of the NHS".

Yet the question remains: how far outside the Tory mainstream is Mr Hannan, a former speechwriter for William Hague and Michael Howard? Does he in fact speak for a silent minority, or any majority, of Tory members, activists and parliamentary candidates, who have long been equivocal in their support for the egalitarian principles behind the NHS? And is the entire shadow cabinet as committed to the service as Mr Cameron says he is?

(The Conservative leader did, incidentally, endorse Mr Hannan's The Plan: Twelve Months to Renew Britain, in which he and the Tory MP Douglas Carswell describe the NHS as "the national sickness service".) One of Mr Cameron's closest allies, Michael Gove, is listed with Mr Hannan as co-author of a book, Direct Democracy, which says the NHS "fails to meet public expectations" and is "no longer relevant in the 21st century". So are his fellow shadow cabinet members Greg Clark and Jeremy Hunt. Mr Gove also sits on the board of the Atlantic Bridge group - which promotes links between British Conservatives and US Republicans - along with George Osborne, Mr Hague and Chris Grayling. The group's US members include Senator Jim DeMint (who has claimed the NHS lets young women die by refusing to screen under-25s for cervical cancer) and Congressman John Campbell, who branded the NHS "enormously inefficient, wasteful and costly". The founder of the Atlantic Bridge is Liam Fox, the shadow defence secretary.

Labour ministers rightly believe they have found a chink in the Tory armour. As the Health Secretary, Andy Burnham, argues: "The NHS is a Labour success story. It has the unequivocal support of every Labour representative. The same cannot be said for Mr Cameron's party."

Labour's record on health is not beyond reproach. As Allyson Pollock pointed out in her book NHS plc, billions of pounds in taxpayers' cash has been paid out to private companies to build PFI hospitals and to set up independent-sector treatment centres. Yet there have been real improvements. Spending on health has tripled under Labour. It has reversed the upward trend in numbers of people waiting for treatment - a first since the foundation of the NHS. And it has boosted the numbers of NHS doctor and nurses. There is now an extraordinarily high level of satisfaction among NHS patients, with nine out of ten rating their care good to excellent.

US Republicans should remember that in Britain, unlike in America, no one goes without basic health care because he has no money. And the Tories should remember that this simple promise was made by a Labour government committed to equality, universality and access based on need, not ability to pay. Today's Labour government needs to convince voters that these are not Tory principles, and it is Labour - not the Conservatives - that is the party of the NHS. Whether it succeeds in doing so could still determine the next election.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Is Google Evil?