Jeremy Hunt has an unusual way of delivering a forceful speech. He pulls a worried, frowny face, and speaks in a special growly sort of voice when he wants to criticise his opponents, but doesn’t shout, or indeed really raise his voice at all. Today he delivered a particularly forceful speech to the Conservative conference on why the Tories are the ‘party of the NHS’. He used that phrase ‘our NHS’ that Andy Burnham likes to deploy as part of his emotive pitch to voters on the health service. Hunt used the same emotive pitch today, arguing that Labour placed ideology above what works for patients, and that it failed to address problems. He said:
‘Even their own people felt desperately uncomfortable. To those Labour people who hated what was happening on their watch, I have this to say: you were right. Covering things up is not only worse for those who suffer. It means the problem doesn’t get fixed and may be repeated.
‘And then it’s not the rich who suffer, it is the most vulnerable. Disabled children. Older people with dementia. Those with no relatives to kick up a fuss. Ordinary people who put their faith in the system, only to find the system wasn’t there for them when they needed it. Labour betrayed the very people they claim to stand up for.’
He also contrasted the increasing opposition in the current Labour party to the very reforms that its own ministers worked to introduce when in government with the attitude of his own party, saying:
‘But no ideology, left or right, should ever trump the needs of patients. Because for patients it’s not public vs private. It’s good care vs bad care. And we’ll stamp out bad care wherever we find it – public sector, private sector, hospitals, care homes, surgeries – and never cover it up.’
And his policy announcement, while technical, is good policy and good politics too. He will give the Care Quality Commission greater independence, removing the power of the Health Secretary to intervene in the operational decisions of the CQC. This means the watchdog can get on with its job, but it also serves as a reminder of Labour’s toxic legacy on the NHS. Hunt wants to take the moral high ground in this debate, and to do so, he will need to continue trying to trip up his opponents politically as well as developing new policy.