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Hunt is right to take the fight to Labour on healthcare

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-07-17 at 10.21.39The Daily Mirror likes to see itself as a fount of truth about the NHS, so let's look at recent poll results it published about the service. "Asked which of the main parties people trust most on health," the paper reported, "37 per cent picked Labour, compared to 19 per cent for the Tories and just 7 per cent for the Lib Dems".  In other words, Labour's trust ratings are almost double those of the Conservatives, whose own ones are more than double those of the LibDems: in crude terms, over twice as many people trust David Cameron to run the health service as Nick Clegg.  However, only 63 per cent of those questioned name a political party at all: well over two in five voters don't trust any of them.

This is a useful background against which to set the calculations about who is winning and losing the political dogfight about the NHS - and whether the Conservatives should be engaged in it at all.  In a nutshell, Labour have a formidable advantage over the Tories on health, but scarcely more than a third of voters trust Ed Miliband's party on the issue.  It follows that given the low standing of politics and politicians, it is open to reputational damage.  Attacks from Conservative politicians are unlikely to have much effect in this regard.  But they help to highlight and frame a simple point about the Keogh Report: namely, that it describes a system established on Labour and Andy Burnham's watch.

That message is amplified, and projected with more credibility, by third parties - principally the media.  In turn, news of the report's main findings, lingering memories of the terrible death of babies at Morecambe Bay and the horrible treatment of elderly people at Mid-Staffs (and of another report: that of Robert Francis) will mingle hazily in voters' minds.  They are less likely to dwell on arithmetical calculations about whether deaths could or could not have been avoided than to half-recall some appalling details - such as the patients who were left so dehydrated that they drank from vases in their desperation.  Against this background, ideas about how to reform and improve the service are more likely to get a fair wind than they might otherwise.

And since Conservatives want to make the NHS better, it's evident that attacking Labour's record on the back of critical reports - such as the Keogh and Francis ones - is more likely to help to create a climate for change than fighting by Queensberry rules.  This is the logic that younger Tory MPs - such as Steve Barclay, Phillip Lee, Charlotte Leslie and Chris Skidmore - have grasped from the start, and which ConservativeHome also recommended.  Political practicalities and principles come together in shouting about Labour's record for the rooftops while also striving to improve the service - as Jeremy Hunt is doing through such measures as his new duty of care (though Ministerial plans from above are no substitute for patient pressure from below).

The Health Secretary was therefore absolutely right yesterday to highlight both Labour's record and Burnham's.  (The Shadow Health Secretary has still not explained why Labour refused 81 requests for a public inquiry on Mid Staffs.)  Yes, capable, hard-working and caring NHS staff will feel very hard done-by by the after-wash from Keogh.  And it's true that yesterday's exchanges won't have raised the reputation of politicians.  But the hard truth is that reports such as Keogh's will always touch the standing of the whole service, and the alternative for Hunt would have been for him to sit on his hands.  Imagine the complaints today from Conservative MPs and activists if he had.


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