March 27, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith
There are a lot of frustrated people following this election campaign. Journalists are frustrated by only receiving pre-prepared soundbites and little else from politicians. The public must be frustrated at the pettiness of much of the arguments, being essentially down to ‘we will cut a little bit less than them’ and other examples of the narcissism of small differences. But I reckon the most frustrated person in the country following this election campaign right now is Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary. Never heard of him? That’s because he’s been hidden by the Conservatives’ campaign, not allowed to speak, despite being responsible for an organisation that employs 1.4 million people and that consumes over £100bn of taxpayers’ money every year. It’s worth looking at why, and why it could be a mistake.
The Conservatives’ campaign is run by Lynton Crosby. He managed Boris Johnson’s mayoral campaigns, and it’s worth remembering that both those victories were by a Tory in a left-leaning city. So he knows what he is doing. What he is doing is demanding iron discipline and simple messages. This is why you hear so often of the “long term economic plan”. This is also why you hear nothing from the Tories about the NHS. Nothing, the budget given last week by George Osborne didn’t mention it. This was gleefully jumped on by Ed Miliband in his response, and so he should do so. After all, he never ceases to be reminded that he missed out the sections on the deficit and immigration from last year’s conference speech. There is a difference though. Miliband leaving those out was a genuine mistake by someone trying to do a speech by memory. Osborne missing out the NHS was on purpose. The Tories are essentially giving that argument up as lost.
It is true that they poll spectacularly badly on the NHS compared to Labour. So badly that Labour are able to get away with openly lying about it, the first lie is that the Tories would ‘cut the NHS to the bone’. This is a lie because the Tories have promises to ring-fence spending on the NHS. The second lie is that the Tories are privatising the NHS. This is a lie because, well it’s completely untrue. They have continues Labour’s practice of contracting out some non-core services but at no point have they privatised anything.
The NHS needs extra funding of £8bn a year in order to be able to meet growing demand from our ageing population, according the Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England. ONLY the Lib Dems have committed to doing that. The Tories announced a £2 billion downpayment on it in the Autumn Statement last December, but have barely mentioned it since. Cameron has hinted however that the Tories intend to spend the full £30 billion it will cost over the next five years of Parliament to meet these growing demands, but it has been nothing more than hints. That’s because Labour’s charge that the NHS is not safe in Tory hands sticks. So, as one Labour strategist said “no-one believes the Tories in the NHS, so turning up late to the party with a wad of cash isn’t going to work”.
But I think Cameron should still do it. The reason is this. The Tories ARE trusted on the economy. Labour aren’t. If the Tories committed to that extra £30 billion then Labour would HAVE to match it. The Tories can say that they can do it because of cuts in other areas and the proceeds from the growth that their economic policies are producing. It will be hard for Miliband to explain where Labour will find that money without being open to the charge of fiscal irresponsibility.
The longer the Conservatives’ silence on the NHS remains, the longer the charge that they don’t care about it has to stick. The longer Labour’s lies about Conservative intentions and actions on the NHS remain unchallenged, the more chance of them being not only believed but becoming salient as a voting issue.
The Conservatives need to decide what is more potent when voters come to the ballot box. Their advantage over the economy or Labour’s advantage over the NHS. I believe it is the Conservatives’ advantage over the economy, which is why they should have the courage to speak about health. After all, the health service needs to be funded by a strong, stable economy. Who is most likely to deliver that?