We know he has had a tough week, but do go easy on Andrew Lansley.
I had a session with some real right wingers the other day, the kind who call themselves libertarians. It reminded me that the health secretary’s warning against Jamie Oliver “constantly lecturing” fatties against bad diet was actually quite mild.
I have always pigeonholed libertarians as Tories who don’t want to pay their taxes. But this lot sounded seriously angry about the “coercive monopoly of violence” enjoyed by the state (in theory) which “takes your money by force” and wastes it. Food fascists? Don’t get them started. Strikers? Sack them. That self-styled “democracy village” in Parliament Square? Machine gun them.
So, let’s mildly agree it wasn’t smart of Mr Lansley to be so dismissive of fellow Essex boy Oliver’s engaging TV crusade to educate people. It wasn’t wise either of fellow Cabinet new boy Jeremy Hunt to suggest the Hillsborough stadium disaster was caused by Liverpool hooligans. But they were just gaffes, the voices of inexperience.
What prompted Lansley’s outburst was that old Tory conundrum, the tension between a wholesome desire to liberate people from ineffectual (expensive?) state interference and an awareness that some people and some problems can only be solved by such interference.
Labour, of course, leans the other way on statism. But Labour has just lost, so it is the Tories who must decide where to draw the line. You could watch them tottering along it during Commons health question time the other day, the session where Lansley’s normally amiable deputy, Simon Burns, called Speaker Bercow “a stupid, sanctimonious dwarf” in that moment of heat.
I missed the incident, but this column has reported enough gaffes for one week.
Suffice to say it reinforces the impression that the Lansley team may be politically accident prone in ways that will not help its battle to protect the NHS budget from whatever lies ahead.
On this occasion the team was harried by Labour MPs over targets and community hospital (non) closures; it stood its ground very well and, so I noted, Lib Dem care minister Paul Burstow’s hand was dipped in blood too when he endorsed the retreat from “tick box” targets. We are determined to improve cancer survival rates in the first year, Lansley told MPs, and that means tackling late diagnosis.
But those old chestnuts, healthy eating, alcohol pricing and cigarette packaging, also surfaced.
Anne Milton, the new team’s statutory nurse, was sensibly cautious. Higher pricing? Health warnings on drink as there is on cigarettes? Plain packaging for fags?
We are looking carefully at the evidence, she told questioners. Failure is expensive.
No, but there was no hint of libertarian theory, unless we count Tory backbencher Phil Davies’ latest rant against “empire building” and “ridiculous drivel” by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence which doesn’t do its day job very well, says Phil, who speaks out at pro-smoking rallies. He is not typical, far from it. Most Tory MPs are better educated on health realities than 20 years ago.
The one that got away with little publicity this month did so in distant Strasbourg where the European parliament voted against traffic-light food labelling in favour of the guidance daily amounts system, less open to manipulation by the big food producers, MEPs decided.
NICE disagrees. It says traffic lights are easier for the vulnerable poor to understand.
Even libertarians should get that.
It’s public health, Jamie, but not as we know it…
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Michael White: libertarians and public health