Cameron’s radical streak Peels away

By backtracking on bold health reforms, David Cameron is forgetting the history books, writes Harry Cole from Westminster.

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Harry Cole
On 29 May 2011 14:07

David Cameron once claimed that Sir Robert Peel was the politician from history that he admired the most. If this is true then there would be no better time for the Prime Minister to go back to his history books and do some revision on his radical idol.

Sir Robert Peel’s foresight as Prime Minister allowed him to be judged far kinder by history than by his vicious critics at the time within the press, wider society and deep inside his own party.

His repeal of the Corn Laws after becoming prime minister in 1841 split his party and brought down his government. But Peel understood that the long-term interests of the nation were far more important than the vested interests of British corn producers, or even the loyalty of rural, parliamentary backbenchers.

Free trade, and cheap bread, won the day, and Peel paid the price of being consigned to the backbenches until his death. But his mark on British history will never be erased.

This government’s plan to reform the National Health Service could have been what David Cameron is celebrated in history for. It’s a radical and intelligent set of proposals to protect free-at-the-point-of-use healthcare by simplification and the introduction of best practice.

But the risk now is that it may end up on the scrap heap. The powerful unions that represent the vested interests inside what, in current form, is a plainly unsustainable organisation are digging in their heels. And Cameron is wobbling.

We are about to see just how radical he really is, or whether, like his other hero Tony Blair, he will crack under pressure and fail to stand up for what he believes in.

As things stand, the NHS isn’t far off needing intensive care all of its own. There is nothing healthy about a shoddy monopoly being sustained by borrowing. Despite being the third largest employer in the world -- behind only the Chinese Army and Indian Railways -- the NHS places only 25 percent of its staff in any meaningful front-line role.

The trouble is that though horror stories emerge all the time about the appalling service received, overall the NHS is supported by the public with a quasi-religious fervour. Any perceived criticism, even from those who want to protect the principle and practice of healthcare that is free-at-the-point-of-use, is simply shouted down.

On the back of this public support, the NHS’s back-end bureaucracy and managerial rump, facing the axe, have whipped up enough scare stories about the reforms to begin to turn the battle regardless of the true interests of the organisation they profess to care about.

Labour who depend on this rump as part of their core vote -- yet did more to privatise the NHS than any previous Tory administration -- have cynically joined in. Their friendly newspapers have rowed in too. The public are being turned by factually incorrect poison and drip-fed spin.

Cameron’s media operation on his plans is another problem. The grandstanding, U-turning Liberal Democrats, despite voting the bill through the early stages in Parliament, aren’t helping matters either.

Sir Robert Peel once said: “Public opinion is a compound of folly, weakness, prejudice, wrong feeling, right feeling, obstinacy, and newspaper paragraphs.” Never could truer words be spoken of this current mess. But has David Cameron listened to his idol, or has he listened to the fake, union-led background noise?

Consider the position of Andrew Lansley, David Cameron’s NHS man for six years. It wasn’t so long ago that the prime minister was singing his praises at every opportunity. However it looks like this loyal colleague, who takes on the chin the cruelest of jibes and briefings, from red, yellow and blue alike, is set to be thrown to the plump, overfed public sector wolves and sacrificed to the left-wing chattering classes with their private healthcare plans.

This weekend’s Sunday papers were full of speculation that Lansley is up for the chop, with the sharpest “smile-while-you-kill” briefing coming from within the government.

A fellow Conservative minister was reported by the Sunday Telegraph as saying last night: “I have immense personal sympathy for Andrew but if the Bill becomes something totally different from his original proposals then he will simply not have the credibility to lead the reforms.…”

In other words, sorry the last six years of your life have been a waste of time. The same paper’s Matt d'Ancona, who has eyes and ears deep in Cameron’s inner circle, warned: “...what we are now witnessing is not a ‘pause for reflection’ or a ‘listening exercise’, but a full-blown, carefully orchestrated retreat".

A prime minister’s powers weaken every day that an election draws nearer and this one looks scared after just a year. Cameron told us that he admired much of what Tony Blair did when he was at his most radical, and that it was sad that this died out after his first term.

Yet he seems to be blindly surrendering to the same vested interests and dark union forces that snuffed out Blair’s radical streak.

In opposition Cameron said to the nation: "Tony Blair once told us that his priority could be summed up in three words: education, education, education. I can do mine in three letters. NHS."

But if David Cameron’s priority really is the NHS then he won’t give up the fight to radically improve it so quickly.

Politics might be a tough business. But it’s times like this that make men and make history. Peel wasn’t afraid to put something in the national interest before his party and government. The time for dithering is over. It’s not yet too late. The NHS decision will define his premiership, and Cameron needs to decide if he wants to go down in history as a Peel or a Blair.

Harry Cole is a writer and journalist and the news editor for the Guido Fawkes blog.  He also writes for Total Politics Magazine.

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