Have I been wrong to insist that David Cameron will go on supporting Andrew Lansley until the wretched Health Bill becomes law this side of the expected Queen’s Speech on 9 May?
“Give it to me straight, doctor,” the health secretary is shown asking in a Sunday Times cartoon. “How long have I got?”
The artillery fire directed at Lansley in the past week has been as bad as anything I can remember since, well, since similar fashionable fire raked Ed Miliband’s position in January. In the Lords ministers have “clarified” the secretary of state’s legal responsibilities and been beaten over mental health. Shirley Williams, battered for defending the bill on Question Time, has tacked to port again, but not too far: her weakness is that need to feel loved, no Barbara Castle she.
So can Baroness Williams deliver enough rebel Liberal Democrat peers to defeat the coalition on the bill’s competition section when it faces further scrutiny on 27 February? That is what she told Tuesday’s Guardian she now wants. “It’s good to have Shirley on board, but she’s only good for 10 peers, not for 20,” Labour strategists in the Lords believe. That’s not enough, just as the three reported “drop the bill” Cabinet rebels (Gove? Osborne? Paterson? Pickles? IDS? I don’t know) are not enough.
So Cameron keeps insisting he will prevail (more or less), even as some Westminster gossips say the anonymous Number 10 source for the “Lansley should be shot” remark was the PM’s own NHS adviser, particle physicist and Blair delivery unit graduate, Paul Bate. By happy coincidence Bate is an ex-McKinsey management consultant in a week when the Mail on Sunday (isn’t it meant to be a Tory paper?) reported that the management consultancy has been generously wining and dining top health department suits, while also helping draft the bill.
It may be permitted, but it is not wise when everything this bill touches – including that fresh scrap over NHS productivity data – has become so politicised as angry (on both sides) medical letters to all the broadsheets demonstrate every day. The Sun and David Mellor (once number two at the DH) say drop the bill, Stephen Dorrell and Normans Warner and Tebbit (Lansley’s old boss) say keep it.
I know which of that lot I’d go into the jungle with and it isn’t the Page Three Boys. So I don’t think I am wrong, not yet anyway, although the price of Lansley’s victory will be heavy in terms of coalition cohesion and backbench Tory rage. It may come to look like cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), hardly worth the distress, say some doctors, because so few patients fully recover in real life.
While happy to blast NHS managers for running “a Stalinist organisation” (copyright Brigadier Peter Oborne in the Telegraph), some Tory commentators fear this battle could end up costing Cameron all hopes of a Tory majority in 2015 if recession doesn’t get him first. The speed at which things slip out of control is illustrated in two new ways.
Ministers have been stonewalling Labour’s efforts to have regional risk registers published since former shadow health secretary John Healey first FOI’d it in November 2010. Five such regional registers popped up in the Daily Mirror this week to warn that NHS chief executive Sir David Nicholson’s cuts and Lansley’s bill create risk of more Mid Staffordshire disasters. Not helpful. Nor is the sound of statisticians feuding in public this week over Professor Nick Black’s study in The Lancet which contradicts bedrock coalition (and National Audit Office) claims that NHS productivity tanked despite Labour’s extra billions.
It’s all good political football, but there are patients out there who need everyone to concentrate on their day jobs.