The Conservative land grab on Labour’s territory knows no bounds. The buzz of this week’s conference has been all about finding the ‘common ground’, demonstrated expertly by George Osborne with his raiding of Labour’s policies on the National Living Wage and the new National Infrastructure Committee headed by Lord Adonis. Yesterday afternoon Jeremy Hunt kept up the momentum by declaring the Conservatives were now “the party of the NHS”, even quoting Nye Bevan as an inspiration behind his thinking.
Hunt’s speech to the party faithful was a greatest hits review of the last five years but managed to miss out the looming £2bn deficit (with accusations of political pressure to delay publication of this quarter’s figures). Despite grim predictions for this year’s budget, with increased winter pressures just around the corner, it seems logical that the Conservatives should see the NHS as the prize asset in their drive to push Labour to the far left. Labour’s NHS mantra at the General Election failed to cut through to voters, in what was seen to be their trump card. There is clearly political capital to be won here.
The NHS faces many challenges including an ageing population, a recruitment crisis and a funding squeeze that threatens the introduction of wide-spread rationing. However, should the Conservatives follow the path of reform through the Five Year Forward View they can put the service on sustainable footing whilst also delivering the long-term goal of integrating services. Much as the legacy of New Labour’s investment in the NHS looms large within the party psyche, the Tories have a golden opportunity to slay one of their enduring political stigmas – that they really do care about the NHS.