President Trump, secret privatisation, and a health system that is not for sale, Labour wants an NHS election, writes John McTernan.
Sacred cow or national treasure? The National Health Service (NHS) has been seen as both in political discourse in recent years in the UK. Traditionally, the Conservative Party hasn’t been trusted with it because they vehemently opposed its creation – and though almost all the people who voted in the historic 1945 General Election which led to the birth of the NHS are now dead, folk memories in politics last a long time. On both left and right.
Famously, film director Danny Boyle put the NHS at the centre of the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012. This led to some Tory MPs protesting about this being ‘leftie crap’. Though the comments were isolated - and punished by then Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron - they reflected a long running, and often subterranean, unease that the Tories have had with socialised health.
Smarter minds, though, spotted the significance of Boyle’s telling of the British story. That is why Dominic Cummings, Director of the Leave campaign put the NHS front and centre of his successful Brexit campaign. Plastered on the side of the Leave campaign bus was the figure of £350m - the amount it was claimed the ‘Brexit Bonus’ for the NHS could be. Cue predictable outrage, this time from the Labour side.
The success of this claim wasn’t lost on Jeremy Hunt, then the Conservative Health Secretary, and together with Simon Stevens, the Chief Executive of NHS England, he wrangled nearly £30bn of additional spending out of successive Chancellors - £8bn from George Osborne and a further £20bn from Philip Hammond. Little was made of these triumphs that make Hunt not just the longest servicing Tory Health Secretary, but also the most successful. Partly it was the fact that the money has merely mitigated the impact of austerity on the NHS, mainly it was because neither Chancellor wanted to draw attention to the fact that they would splash the cash for politically symbolic causes.
It was an odd period when the NHS could be the strong suit for the centre right of British politics -and that era is coming to an end.
In this General Election Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour have realised that it is not enough to campaign against the ‘cuts’ in the NHS, they need to make the health service - and what is planned for it - an emblem of the values and intentions of Boris Johnson’s government. Right on cue, President Trump decided to enter the campaign. The President probably thought that joining the Brexit Party Leader Nigel Farage on his LBC phone in would be just another ‘perfect phone call’. Instead it provided Labour with a smoking gun. Trump’s normal loose talk was a perfect example of brand contamination.
The details of what the President said didn’t matter - he is an unreliable witness, particularly for his own actions. Labour has the perfect attack for the election campaign - Tory secret plans. And the best thing about secret plans is that you can never successfully rebut the accusation - you can never show the plans don’t exist because they’re secret! So, it’s a perfect storm - Trump, chlorinated chicken, predatory pricing by US Big Pharma, privatisation, all the scare stories tied to traditional fears about Tory intentions about health.
And there’s one huge bonus for Labour on top of all this - they don’t have to talk about their own policies. Which must be a great relief, because in the words of Gertrude Stein - when you get there, there’s nothing there.
About the author
John Mcternan is a political Strategist and commentator. He is a former advisor to Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Julia Gillard.