It is party conference time. And the old convention that each party let is opponents have their week in the sun is dead.
Gordon Brown is partly responsible for that. His decision to go to Iraq to be televised supporting our boys in the middle of the Conservative party conference in 2007 – just head of the general election he was minded to call but bottled – left the Tories spitting teeth.
Today was part of their revenge. Andrew Lansley declares that some 20-odd NHS hospitals may not be financially and clinically viable because of the scale of their PFI debts – their payments are too high a chunk of their turnover – and that is all Labour’s fault. As indeed is the separate build up of debt which some carry and which, as things stand, will prevent them becoming free standing NHS foundation trusts.
At the same, he procliams the “dismantling” of the £12bn NHS IT programme to create an electronic patient record, again blaming Labour for “wasting taxpayers money” on systems that have failed to deliver their promise.
There is less than immediately meets the eye to both these announcements. The “dismantling” of the IT programme amounts chiefly to scrapping its programme board, putting the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude in charge, and “accelerating” – if that proves to be the case – an already announced plan to give hospitals more choice over which systems they adopt.
The real crunch issue remains subject to further negotiations – namely how much, if any, to cancel of the contract to install systems across two thirds of the country that is held by the US computer giant CSC, and which has seen repeated, reset, deadlines missed.
Announcing these limited changes ahead of a settlement with CSC is chiefly a way to beat up Labour ahead of its conference next week rather than an attempt to shed genuine light on the future of a programme crucial to high quality patient care.
Likewise the hospital debt announcement. It is all Labour’s fault.
The department announced months ago that it was examining this issue. And in practice it has been clear for some time that in at least some cases the health department is going to have to take part of these hospital’s PFI debts on to its own books in order to allow them to operate in the NHS market.
That won’t, of course, clear the debts, merely alter who pays, with no net saving to the NHS budget. But the message from Mr Lansley is that “we will not let the sick pay for Labour’s debt crisis.” Trust you’ve got that clearly.