Always in search of a scoop, I tried to track down a speech about the NHS which I had heard that Gordon Brown made last weekend. It did not seem to have been widely reported, but this was not entirely the media’s fault.
In their wisdom, Labour strategists had promised a celebrity guest at their rally in social care minister Phil Hope’s Corby constituency. The VIP turned out to be an Elvis impersonator. Ho, ho.
You probably heard about that stunt, which smacked slightly of the desperation gripping Labour’s campaign as polls repeatedly showed the party trailing behind Nick Clegg’s surging Lib Dems. My stubborn reluctance to concede a hung parliament may have to be modified by polling day.
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Chums at Labour HQ eventually provided a Brown transcript. Was there a scoop? Well, sort of. But first the context. Is the fact that the NHS has - as I write - not yet been a source of major election controversy a good or bad thing?
My hunch remains that it is basically positive. Unlike 1997, when Labour was promising to reverse the Tory mixed health market - and did so under Frank Dobson - all the main parties now accept it.
When my Guardian colleague Randeep Ramesh attended last week’s health hustings he reported that all three spokesfolk got a hard time from NHS professionals.
Andy Burnham was rebuked over the secrecy of foundation trusts, Andrew Lansley over the Tories’ craven refusal to back minimum unit pricing for alcohol and for letting the boss of Care UK (which got £400m from the NHS last year) donate £21,000 to help fund his office; even Norman Lamb raised eyebrows by backing a John Lewis style staff takeover of service provisions.
All good stuff, but not fundamental. It is not that the Tories won’t try to run the service differently or that their budget maths is worse than Labour’s (so fasten seat belts), it is that the direction of travel is broadly the same. The 2010 battle is about means more than ends.
So what was the PM’s message? “Twelve days to save the NHS”? No, nothing so dramatic and besides, he says Labour has now saved it. A clear admission that doctors’ and nurses’ jobs will go in the cuts? It is something the Tories confirmed via freedom of information requests to trusts: £5bn worth of potential frontline cuts. Anxious nurses are shouting too.
No again, though it is worth speculating that the Lib Dems are doing well precisely because voters want the main two parties to be more frank on policy choices like this; illogically well, since the Lib Dems are no more candid.
Instead Brown used his speech to praise the NHS, its staff and ideals in a familiar 1948 (“the Tories opposed it”) sort of way.
He warned - rightly - that international opinion is against withdrawing extra state spending before the economic recovery is secure; and that NHS jobs would be among those lost if the Tories cut early. He praised Burnham’s efforts to create a national care service which he pillaged.
But his main thrust repeatedly stressed that under Labour “everyone should have the right, a personal guarantee from us, enforceable by the patient, to see a cancer specialist within two weeks”. The Tories would take that away to fund “tax breaks for millionaires”.
That seems to be Labour’s 2010 message.
And the scoop? When young Brown lost one eye in a rugby accident and NHS staff saved the other, the trolley would come round the ward offering free “Guinness, beer or wine”. No wonder he loves it, but is free booze still Labour policy, let alone at 16?
Alas, chums tell me it one of his (small) stock of jokes.