Using the NHS to end the fuel crisis will do little to woo back voters

The press release issued to support health secretary Alan Milburn's claim that the NHS was in grave danger at the height of last week's petrol blockade is going to haunt the government. Shadow health secretary Dr Liam Fox swiftly exploited errors in the release to 'prove' that the government was hyping the NHS's problems to undermine public support for the protesters.

Never mind that the mistakes were just that. The fact remains that the Department of Health put out material designed to show there was a crisis and Mr Milburn slavishly followed prime minister Tony Blair in playing it up. That is why Dr Fox's charge will stick (although he hardly emerges covered in glory for his political opportunism when only days earlier his party's draft manifesto had promised to take politics out of the NHS). It is also why Mr Milburn will be on rocky ground if he tries to complain when the newspapers cook up a winter crisis on equally partial evidence.

Still, the government will be worrying about more than an unwise press release in the wake of the fuel crisis, which showed there is a block of voters that has never been reconciled to a Labour government and which will kick out at one, given an excuse.

Until now, the government has behaved as if it can have everything focus groups say the public wants without really articulating a vision of what it wants for Britain.

So it has set out a candy-stall of more beds, more nurses and better GPs for the NHS - without laying bare its underlying philosophy for the future of public services. And it has promised bags of cash without ever quite admitting the tax implications.

This has had some unfortunate consequences. Labour has been happy to kick public servants - including NHS managers - in search of good headlines, even though this undermines its real desire to rebuild public services, for example.

But it may not be practicable any more. Setting out a fundamental belief in public services, and making it clear that it plans to tax to fund them, will alienate some voters - including the men on last week's picket lines.

But it might bring other voters round - including the women noticeably absent from the gates of the oil refineries and those voters transferring allegiance to the Liberal Democrats.

It would also improve the level of public debate and provide a better basis for fighting the right wing's slow move towards a two-tier health service.

But if the government does want to go down this road, 'that' press release will not be a good point from which to start.