Peter Hoskin

Andy Burnham goes way too far<br />

Andy Burnham goes way too far<br />
Text settings

There's little denying that the planets aligned just right for Gordon Brown last week: a Tory in cahoots with those dastardly folk on the "American right"; a chance to defend that popular cause, the NHS; and all wrapped up in a funky new medium which the papers love to write about.  But there are signs that, in their desperation to keep the #welovetheNHS story running, Labour are taking things way too far.  I thought it a few days ago, when Andy Burnham called Dan Hannan "unpatriotic".  But now the Health Secretary has exceeded himself, with a press release he sent out last night which makes a series of bizarre demands of David Cameron.  Here are some of the key passages and, I assure you, this isn't a parody - this really is what the minister in charge of our health service spent part of his weekend arranging:

"Today I am challenging [David Cameron] to take three steps which could reassure people that the Conservatives have truly changed when it comes to the NHS.

1. Will you rescind your Party Conference invitation to those members of the Atlantic Bridge who have rubbished our NHS? Liam Fox is reportedly holding a drinks reception at your conference for a group called the ‘Atlantic Bridge’. But its American board members include vehement opponents of health reform - and one of them has praised Dan Hannan for rubbishing our NHS.  Will you rescind this invitation from any of the group’s members who have misrepresented the NHS?

2. Will you withdraw the whip from Dan Hannan for his attacks on the NHS? It is not just that Mr Hannan doesn’t endorse the NHS.  He went out of his way to talk it down and misrepresent it publicly.  Therefore will you withdraw the whip – as you did from one of your other MEPs after he opposed the controversial Michal Kaminksi as head of your new European grouping?

3. Will you demand that your Shadow Ministers resign from the Cornerstone Group? The right-wing Cornerstone Group counts many Shadow Ministers among its members, including your Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson.  Yet it has published a report describing the NHS as “Stalinist” and calling for it to be replaced. Will you order your Shadow Ministers to resign from the Cornerstone Group?"

Withdraw the whip from someone for holding an opinion on the NHS (and an opinion which has been unfairly caricatured in the press)?  Rescind invitations to people for the same reason?  Even if David Cameron is thinking of taking these utterly unwarranted steps, surely it's not Burnham's place to demand them.

The problem for Labour is this smacks more and more of opportunism, and is likely to be regarded by the public as just that.  I rather suspect that the more they reduce this debate to ad hominem attacks and innuendo, the more voters are going to say: "Hang on, but the NHS does need deep reform."  Especially as - as Fraser pointed out yesterday - Dan Hannan's views may not be as "eccentric" as all that.