When Andy Burnham returned to the health beat for Labour, some in Andrew Lansley’s team were delighted. This is the man, they pointed out, who said he would not ringfence spending on the NHS. He even said that to do so would be “irresponsible” – hardly a vote-winning tactic.
David Cameron clearly thinks the same thing – that by shifting the focus of the health debate onto Burnham and his refusal to promise extra money for the NHS, he can nullify the controversy surrounding his health bill.
That is why, several times during today’s session of prime minister’s questions, Cameron insisted:
That’s what you get if you get Labour: no money, no reform, no good health service.
It would be an effective tactic if it were not for two things: 1) nobody is really interested in the NHS ringfence at the moment – the focus is the government’s reforms, and Cameron didn’t really offer a compelling argument for them; and 2) trying to persuade voters that Labour would not spend money on the NHS is nigh on impossible.
David Cameron tried to attack Labour’s record on the health service: wasted money on IT contracts, wasted money on PFI schemes. But that line of attack undermined his previous point, that Labour would underspend on the NHS.
For Ed Miliband, the task is to shift blame for the bill from Andrew Lansley to Cameron himself. This job is made easier by the PM’s pre-election promise of “no more top down reorganisations of the NHS”, something the Labour leader loves to quote back at him.
Cameron in turn replied with stats about waiting times, mixed-sex wards and hospital infection rates, rather than defending the bill itself. You get the feeling he can’t get away from it fast enough.
PS – One other thing of note. Cameron’s comments that Andrew Lansley’s career prospects were better than Ed Miliband’s. Lots of commentators have taken this as a show of support from the PM to his embattled health secretary. But surely this is a case, if ever there was one, of damning with faint praise?