On Tuesday, the Cabinet will discuss the NHS and how it is coping with the winter crisis. But, as I say in the Sun today, the Tories need more than update on what’s going on, they need a proper plan for the NHS. It is one of the issues that could cost them the next election.
When David Cameron became Tory leader, his main focus was on the NHS. He used to say that you could sum up his priorities in three letters, N H S. He reckoned that until voters trusted the Tories with the health service, they wouldn’t win an election.
But right now, the Tories aren’t talking about the NHS more than they absolutely have to. Gavin Barwell, Theresa May’s chief of staff, is clear that when they aren’t focusing on the overarching themes of the economy and delivering a good Brexit deal they should be emphasising housing, school standards and the environment.
The thinking goes that the NHS is a Labour issue, so there’s little benefit in the Tories highlighting it. But this is a mistake. Voters regard the health service as the second biggest issue facing the country after Brexit.
Boris Johnson has been banging on about more money for the NHS since the referendum. He’s desperate to show he’s delivering on the Leave campaign’s potent but much derided pledge that Brexit would deliver another £350 million a week for the NHS. The Chancellor Philip Hammond has been brutally clear in private that he doesn’t regard it as his job to get Boris off the hook on this.
But the Tories need to forget about the referendum, and who was on which side. For unless they address public concerns about the NHS, they’ll be arguing about all of this in opposition.
The Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt wants a 10 year funding plan for the NHS. This is a sensible policy—it would ensure that the money came in over the time and avoid it causing too much input inflation.
Now, those in Number 10 who think that the consensus behind this plan wouldn’t hold for a decade are almost certainly right. But it would be a start. The five-year funding plan for the NHS certainly made health less of an electoral issue in 2015 than it otherwise would have been.
If the Tories are to hold Corbyn off at the next election, they’ll need an answer to the NHS question.