Will the NHS Determine the Result of the 'Brexit Election'?

Peter Russell

November 08, 2019

Sleeves rolled up and tie tucked into the gap between the buttons of his white shirt, Boris Johnson strolled into Addenbrooks Hospital last week shortly after MPs approved an historic snap pre-Christmas poll.

With cameras rolling, the meet and greet event underlined that while this December's general election was called to try to settle Brexit, other key issues will play a major part in garnering votes.

Boris Johnson once remarked that he liked to chill by building buses. However, the bus associated with the Prime Minister is the pre-European referendum bus promising that leaving the club would divert money from the EU and into the NHS.

And political parties know that this election is being fought at a time when the health service may be entering a winter crisis with all the possibilities of bed shortages, flu, and spending cuts undermining attempts by politicians to look like they are in charge.

Today, NHS recruitment is on the agenda for Boris Johnson with promises of half-price visas and quicker immigration decisions for overseas doctors and nurses under a new points-based system.

Sleeves Rolled Up

Mr Johnson's 31st October visit to the Cambridge Clinical Research Facility was devised to underline the Conservative party's commitment to the NHS. Sleeves rolled up to his elbows, this was a PM business-like and determined.

The previous day Jeremy Corbyn had paid a visit to Crawley Hospital. Also in a white shirt, but this time tie-less, the Labour leader had repeated his claims that the Conservatives were plotting to sell off parts of the NHS to the US in a post-Brexit trade deal.

Visiting hospitals and posing with doctors and nurses is as habitual to politicians in the thrust of a general election as kissing babies.

That two party leaders paid hospital visits even before electioneering officially began, underlining how the two big parties would like to see this campaign unfolding.

But contesting a poll in the depths of winter, when the health service is most likely to be under intense pressure, will be very risky. It's just one reason why governments rarely call elections at this time of year.

And as campaigning gets underway in earnest, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges warned the major parties not to politicise the NHS for electoral gain.

It was clear that both Labour and the Conservatives planned to spend the election talking about the NHS, because it was less divisive and easier to explain than Brexit, while calls for more resources were "Catnip to the undecideds and a sure fire way of getting a round of applause on Question Time," according to Academy of Medical Royal Colleges chair Carrie MacEwen.

NHS Funding

There has already been a foretaste of things to come.

In September, the Conservatives claimed a commitment to funding for 40 new hospitals while disappointment followed when it was realised there was only funding allocated for six.

Also in September, Labour claimed that its plans for a nationalised drugs company would make medicines cheaper.

The Academy called for "politicians to rely on facts and rational debate – not illusory promises" and "dog-whistle rhetoric".

People with longer memories may recall the 1992 general election and the so-called 'war of Jennifer's ear'.

Labour, which had been in opposition for more than a decade, sought to denigrate the Conservatives for mismanagement of the health service by featuring in a party election broadcast a 5-year-old girl with glue ear who waited a year for surgery to insert grommets, comparing it with speedier care for a child able to access private treatment.

Labour's point about healthcare was overshadowed by debate about the ethics of involving a young girl in national politics. They lost the '92 election.

PR Stunts?

An early example of what might happen to politicians playing the NHS card occurred at Addenbrooks this month when medical student Julia Simons, 23, called Boris Johnson's visit a PR stunt, complaining: "I wasn't allowed to ask him any questions."

She added: "As doctors, we practise evidence-based medicine, and politics should be evidence-based too."

In a final speech as chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard pleaded for politicians not to resort to "vote-winning gimmicks" during the election.

She cautioned politicians not to "make any rash decisions about our service or introduce gimmicks that might be vote winners but would ultimately set back general practice 20 years".

To misquote former 1970s Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan: 'Crisis? What crisis?'

It didn't matter that 'Sunny Jim' never uttered those words. What lodged in the public consciousness after a Sun journalist came up with the headline was the impression of a government unaware that it was confronting chaos in the face of social unrest and a buckling pound.

Health is an issue that can break politicians and political campaigns.

Peter Russell is a freelancer medical writer for Medscape UK and was a political lobby correspondent between 1990 and 2004.

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