Could there yet be a last-minute twist in the election campaign, as the NHS comes to the fore? Today serves as a reminder of the power of Labour’s favourite issue.
On Sunday, the Yorkshire Evening Post revealed the harrowing story of a four-year-old boy with suspected pneumonia who had to sleep on a hospital floor for more than four hours due to a bed shortage.
Boris Johnson sounded uncomfortable when the story was the first thing he was quizzed about by presenter Nick Ferrari on LBC this morning. Johnson was speaking from Grimsby, a seat held by Labour since 1945, which the Tories have high hopes of capturing, one brick in the “red wall” of Labour constituencies running from north Wales to the north east. He was up early, meeting traders at Grimsby Fish Market, and hoping that Brexit will dominate the final three days of campaigning.
Instead, the prime minister had to apologise to “everybody who has a bad experience” with the NHS. No wonder he sounded uneasy. It’s not just the potency of the health issue. It’s also a powerful reminder to voters that Johnson’s party has been in power for nine years. He has tried to distance himself from that, even suggesting at one point he opposed austerity in 2010. With eyebrows raised, he rowed back a little.
For all his protestations that he leads “a new government” after only 130 days in power, Johnson should not be able to escape the shadow of austerity. He wants to be Macavity, the mystery cat, never at the scene of the crime, unlike Jo Swinson, who is getting a very hard time at this election for the coalition’s spending cuts. It is unfair, given that the Liberal Democrats tried to resist the worst proposals by their Tory senior partner, and did block some. The Tories somehow got the credit for Lib Dem ideas like raising the personal tax allowance, while the junior partner still takes the blame for the Tory-driven cuts. That’s coalition politics for you.
The Tories’ desire not to see the NHS in the headlines is more than matched by Labour’s attempts not to talk about Brexit. Labour has built a useful bridge from the EU to health – the threat to the NHS from a US-UK trade deal. It brings Donald Trump into the election debate, the last person Johnson would want it to feature. “NHS for sale” is an easier slogan than trying to explain Labour’s tortuous position on Brexit.
Labour has not yet produced conclusive proof that US health giants would get access to the NHS market or push up UK drug prices. Johnson strongly denies the NHS would be on the table. Yet suspicions to the contrary are valid because the NHS was discussed by US and UK officials in “talks about trade talks”. Tory insiders admit privately that Labour’s relentless campaign on the issue has cut through. “If you put it on every leaflet, it is bound to,” one said.
However, the Tories have put up much more of a fight on health than at some previous elections, when they judged that drawing attention to it wasn’t really worth the candle. Johnson’s more pro-active approach, visiting more hospitals than he’s had hot dinners since becoming prime minister, appears to be paying dividends. The opinion polls show the Tories are in the game rather than off the pitch.
John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, promised today that his first budget on 5 February would be “the budget that saves the NHS”. He said the front-page picture of the four-year-old boy showed “how bad it has got after 10 years of austerity”. Yet some health professionals doubt whether the spending pledges by any of the parties would improve the service, and might only halt its decline. Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS providers, said: “Bandying about large-sounding increases, based on five-year aggregate numbers, and saying ‘all will be well’ is raising expectations that the NHS will inevitably disappoint.”
Some worrying NHS statistics have emerged during the campaign. Today there are damaging claims that the NHS is covering up the real number of patients waiting for more than 12 hours in accident and emergency departments.
And yet Labour probably needed the health issue to be on the front pages for several days, perhaps in a full-scale winter crisis, for it to turn the election tide. Labour sources fear that “NHS for sale” has been eclipsed by Johnson’s relentless “get Brexit done” slogan, however misleading it is to claim Brexit will be over by next month. In the Labour heartlands of the north and midlands targeted by Johnson, the combination of Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn’s unpopularity is harming the party, Labour officials admit.
If, as I suspect, Johnson wins a majority on Thursday, it will be portrayed as a huge personal triumph. But when the history books are written, I think they will say it was Brexit that won it.