Isabel Hardman

NHS political football, full-time report: Hunt and Burnham’s fouls and fury

NHS political football, full-time report: Hunt and Burnham's fouls and fury
Text settings

Jeremy Hunt's statement on the Keogh review marked one of the uglier Commons sessions in this parliament. Amid shouting, muttering and angry pointing from the Opposition benches, the Health Secretary announced that 11 of the 14 hospitals in the review would be put into 'special measures', while making clear that he blamed the culture the Labour government had nurtured in the NHS, and pressure from ministers to cover up bad news. Labour MPs hated the last assertion in particular, roaring with disagreement as Hunt said:

'It is never acceptable for the government to put pressure on the NHS to accept bad news because in doing so they make it less likely that poor care will be tackled.'

Burnham accused him of being partisan and guilty of 'one of the most cynical spin operations of our time'. Labour's Shadow Health Secretary was not enormously impressive when he did his angry broadcast tour this morning, but his defence of himself in the Chamber this afternoon was much more impressive. He contrasted the contents of the report to the way the Tories were presenting its findings in the Commons and in the media, and he made a reasonably good job of it as well.

But neither party really did a good job today, because the entire statement and question session afterwards was an incredibly angry fight over who did or didn't do bad things to 'our NHS', as both Hunt and Burnham want to badge it. There was very little debate about the policies that can stop similar poor care, or the policies that will improve the 11 hospitals in special measures. If Labour didn't want to play party politics with the NHS, why were they giving it as much gusto as their opponents on trying to pin the blame for the failings on the Tories? There were some incredibly partisan statements from Labourites such as Chris Bryant, who quipped that Hunt 'used to be run by Coulson, now he looks like he's run by Crosby'.

Why was everyone having a big political fight? Because Labour loves its poll lead on the NHS, and because it doesn't want the Tories to have the opportunity to call it 'our NHS' as Hunt was doing today. Rachel Sylvester today explains the Tory desire to go after Burnham after his audacious behaviour on the NHS reforms, and it must be satisfying to hit back after a long period of smears and conspiracy theorists. But both parties were simply fighting today over who loves the NHS more, not really over anything of substance. Watching the second half of this political football game, it was honestly difficult to know who to trust more, or who to feel more exasperated with.