Amid the uproar over the MPs’ expenses scandal three prime ministers addressed health issues this past week. I refer, of course, to Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Alan Johnson, who is also now tipped (improbably) to succeed Alistair Darling in Number 11.
I will return to them and The Telegraph’s exes exposé. But first, whistleblowing.
The Royal College of Nursing conference got understandably upset about the regulator’s decision to strike off Margaret Haywood, the Brighton nurse who exposed substandard care for Panorama.
Rightly so, MPs agreed. Richard Taylor, the ex-consultant independent MP (“I am often accused of being a dinosaur”), staged a little-reported Commons debate in which he quoted recent HSJ reports about bullying of NHS staff by fellow staff. It was echoed by colleagues from Stafford.
More important, health minister Ben Bradshaw (on The Telegraph hit list), offered cautious support. He agreed with the RCN that the verdict was “unduly harsh” and should be appealed. The confidential question to staff about the quality of care in their hospital will be reinstated in the Care Quality Commission’s annual survey. It was dropped last year because of “a problem with wording”, Mr Bradshaw told MPs. Staff in psychiatric wards would hardly agree they would be “happy” to be treated there, he explained.
The Harrogate conference endorsed a whistleblower’s hotline, hardly surprising when even consultants tell MPs they fear career reprisals for speaking out.
I do not think The Telegraph’s bootleg CD on MPs’ exes counts as whistleblowing, since the stuff was due to be published anyway. But it shined an embarrassing spotlight on ministers Bradshaw and Phil Hope, plus Andrew Lansley.
The Tory health spokesman issued a fierce denial of “flipping” his homes to take advantage of expenses rules: he was genuinely moving house for family reasons, the children of his second marriage being schooled in Cambridge, not London.
Lansley strikes me as straight, straighter than The Telegraph, so I believe him. Some Labour MPs, Bradshaw included, seem a bit hard done by too. It barely matters: the damage to the political elite is huge.
The Telegraph’s version of events (if fair) also gave the secretary of state a gold star as one of the good guys who did not milk the system. That might be highly significant to Johnson’s chances if Brown were to quit (which he won’t).
The PM himself used the RCN conference to apologise for the expenses abuses. He also praised “the dedication of nurses” and promised them better pay and status when good times return.
It might have been more impressive if he’d ticked them off for what many voters see as careless and uncaring habits of some nurses. But Brown and Cameron have seen the NHS at its best, struggling to save the lives of their dying children. So we’ll let them both off.
Cameron’s task in Harrogate was to persuade nurses that his support for a free NHS is not cynical focus group expediency.
“My commitment comes from a deep philosophical belief, a belief in mutual responsibility,” he said. No more pointless reorganisations, but “I want to improve it for everybody”.
That’s not how PM Not In Waiting Johnson sees it. In a Fabian Society speech he contrasted Labour’s commitment to ending health inequalities - part of the widening wealth gap confirmed last week despite all Brown’s billions for the poor - with Cameron’s “default position” on public spending cuts.
We’ll keep trying to close the gap; they won’t, was his message. That bit is not on the Department of Health’s website, where it says “political content excised”.