After a truly septimana horribilis, Andrew Lansley will be grateful for the shelter of the February recess. Defeat in the Lords, receiving the deadly vote of confidence from the prime minister, reading in the Times that he ‘should be taken out and shot’ – some may not begrudge the health secretary’s mind wandering off to Courchevel and the freshly laid snow in his week off. But while our MPs have returned to their constituencies, the Lords will give another mauling to the health and social care bill, which is already groaning under the weight of amendments and concessions. The dire political management has allowed a commandingly calm Ed Miliband to seize the political agenda and land hefty blows against a clearly rattled and raging prime minister and an increasingly panicking government.
As last week’s debate in the Commons was under way, the Faculty of Public Health became the latest healthcare body to call for the bill to be dropped ‘in the best interests of everyone’s health’. They join the Royal College of GPs, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, the British Medical Association, nurses and midwives in calling for this ‘damaging, unnecessary and expensive reorganisation’ to be scrapped. A joint editorial by the three leading health journals further describes the planned reforms as ‘an unholy mess’. Today sees the second day of the health and social care bill report stage where at least two votes are expected to come before a vote; crossbencher Lord Patel’s amendment on health education, and the crossbencher Lady Masham’s amendment imposing a ‘duty of candour’ making the health secretary responsible for ensuring NHS bodies inform next of kin if a patient dies or suffers as a consequence of their treatment. Both could inflict yet further damage on this wretched bill.
With the Queen celebrating her sixtieth year as monarch, political eyes will soon turn the Queen’s Speech in the spring. The Sunday papers received briefings galore: the Sunday Telegraph reported that George Osborne has ruled out tax breaks for married couple, much to the dismay of the Conservative backbenches. And the Sunday Times reports that the 50p tax rate will stay until 2015, and that the Liberal Democrats are pushing hard to reduce the tax relief offered to wealthier Britons saving money in a private pension. With the grandeur of the NHS debate rumbling on in to its second week, it must not be forgotten that smaller, and no less serious, decisions are being taken by the coalition government in the days ahead.
Miliband has had a good start to February, after an indifferent January. He has rightly recognised the need to not intervene when your opponent is making a crucial mistake. Polls now show that 62 per cent of voters do not trust Andrew Lansley with the health service. Among Tory voters, nearly a quarter said they did not now trust their own government to handle the NHS. Labour would dearly love the NHS, historically its best asset, to be one of the key battlefields of the next election. While we as a party remain on the defensive about its economic record on the NHS, Labour can boast that it left office with the health service restored and enjoying unprecedentedly high public approval ratings.
Lansley will return from recess to face Health Questions on his first day back. His fate, and that of the NHS as we know it, may well be defined on that Tuesday afternoon.
David Talbot is a political consultant and tweets @_davetalbot
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