Why have the Conservatives left out immigration and the NHS – two of the three issues that voters consistently cite as the most important in forming their decision about who to back in the General Election – out of their list of six priorities? Among the deficit, jobs, taxes, education, housing and retirement there is no room for the health service, immigration or Europe: which also tend to be the things David Cameron and Ed Miliband fight most vehemently over at Prime Minister’s Questions.
Labour is very pleased about this, and is pretending to be very cross that the Prime Minister is ignoring the NHS. Presumably Ukip will be similarly thrilled that immigration isn’t seen as a priority (and the Mail has decided that this omission is the key angle for its coverage of David Cameron’s no-announcements speech today).
Those two reactions are the key to understanding this ‘six priorities’ launch taking place this week. The Tories want to talk about things where they think a debate will benefit them, no matter what the discussion. They cannot talk too much about immigration – and indeed they know that they spent far too much of the autumn talking about it – because doing so tends to benefit Ukip, both by suggesting that Nigel Farage is right to talk about this issue quite so much, and because Ukip can promise far more than the Tories can promise or indeed want to promise. Similarly talking about the NHS tends to benefit the party that voters trust the most on the NHS: Labour. That’s why some Tories told James that they were worried about the inclusion of Jeremy Hunt in their ‘telly team’, because putting him on the airwaves would mean the NHS would come up more often.
A debate about the economy – even if it involves Labour calling a report CCHQ’s attack squad have produced a ‘dodgy dossier’ because it relies on as many assumptions as possible – benefits the Tories because they lead on this in the polls, it is the most important issue for many voters, and Labour has to refute inaccurate attacks from the Tories by admitting that it actually wouldn’t reverse certain cuts it has spent the past four years complaining about, after all.
Today’s speech from Cameron does address the NHS. Among the commitments he makes will be that the Tories continue to increase spending on the NHS so everyone gets the care they need. Tory messaging appears to have been organised so that the NHS must always appear alongside the economy. Similarly immigration has been put on the ‘welfare’ message sheet – though this has peeved those working on both policy areas as they feel Lynton Crosby, who made the decision to yoke the two together, doesn’t understand the policies in their own right. But for the purposes of talking about issues where other parties are stronger, don’t expect to hear a Tory talking about the NHS without heavy dollops of the deficit, and don’t expect much on immigration without a lot of talk about welfare.