Jeremy’s Hunt hasn’t tried to compete with UKIP’s mostly nostalgic fantasy but voters are wary and sceptical of the various NHS pledges, as party conference season comes to an end

As the party conference season headed wearily to a close, what had we all learned that might guide the still just about united nation’s divergent healthcare systems in the turbulent election year ahead?

For me, one practical lesson has been to hear about the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership - shortened to ” Tea Tip” (as in T-TIP), a much snappier way of describing the controversial EU-US trade talks.

With passions aroused and the NHS football pumped up ready for the big match next May, T-TIP won’t go away.

White elephant in the room?

Indeed, outside UKIP’s nostalgia soaked conference at Doncaster Racecourse last weekend I saw a giant plastic white elephant. What’s that for? It’s meant to represent T-TIP, I was told.

Wiser heads than mine say either that a T-TIP deal won’t force privatisation on the NHS as critics fear, or that a treaty will never be agreed anyway. But it remains a good focus for anger as health unions threaten strikes over dwindling pay packets in the face of an even tougher pay stance, promised by chancellor George Osborne at the Tories conference this week in Birmingham.

Labour in Manchester promised to exempt the NHS from T-TIP, as well as repeal the Lansley Act and create Ed Miliband’s new “time to care” fund with £2.5bn of sin taxes.

‘The mainstream parties are under populist pressure and it shows’

Andy Burnham on a party conference platform is not the analytical chap you often hear at health seminars. He gives the activists a burst of old time religion and they love it - a standing ovation for him. If Miliband falters next May, Burnham’s cloth cap will be back in the leadership ring.

I should add here that he’s got a new bit of competition in the ranting stakes. Not from Jeremy Hunt whose “steady as she goes” speech in Birmingham reiterates his familiar themes of quality over targets, transparency and efficiency over structural reform.

Number 10 thinks he’s doing well by calming things down this way, throwing a hefty cheque at immediate issues, triggering bad headlines.

David Cameron’s £400m pledge in Birmingham on weekend access to GPs fitted that template and arouses the same scepticism among wary voters as Labour’s NHS promises. Can they afford it? Do they mean it? Does it make practical sense? The mainstream parties are under populist pressure and it shows.

Enter UKIP

Why? Does Burnham’s competition comes from Louise Bours and who is she? A Brookside actress turned UKIP member of European Parliament from the North West since May, of whom I had not previously heard.

She’s the party’s health spokesman, so I learned in Doncaster where she let rip with an attack on the modern NHS which also promised to restore state enrolled nurses (no more of this “too posh to wash” stuff), abolish Monitor and the Care Quality Commission and replace them with county health board regulation “staffed by health professionals, not politicians”.

NHS managers will be licensed “like doctors” in a UKIP world, and health tourists made to get insurance as Brits do abroad, saving the NHS £2bn, says Bours. “This is the NHS, not the International Health Service,” she told cheering delegates.

‘Much of UKIP’s appeal is irrational and the Tories sound complacent’

There’ll be health checks too before migrants get visas. No more Labour privatisation, no more costly private finance. It’s not all nostalgic fantasy, only mostly so. But Hunt can’t compete and didn’t try.

After all, Osborne has said repeatedly this week that only austerity and healthy public finances can save the NHS we all love. His son drove a nail through his hand making a skateboard at Number 11 and the NHS was wonderful, he confides.

But much of UKIP’s appeal is irrational and the Tories sound complacent.

Michael White writes about politics for The Guardian