Sunday, 18 January 2015

From The Red Box..

Remember how Labour goes on about the NHS, trying to "weaponise" the issue for voters and the Tories want to make our eyes bleed by hammering away at the economy? Well today is a day of new hope, a moment of release, in which we celebrate the great variety of British politics. Because the Tories are going on about the NHS and Labour is banging on about the economy.

While he may deplore the phrase, Jeremy Hunt is today giving a good impression of someone keen to "weaponise" the NHS in Wales. The health secretary has seized on two interventions this morning in The Sunday Times designed to make life awkward for Ed Miliband. A group of 105 patients who have suffered at the hands of the less than stellar Welsh NHS has written to the Labour leader to complain that he is complaining about a crisis in England, whilst remaining mute about the problems on his party's watch in Wales. They want a public inquiry into the performance of Welsh health along the lines of the Francis inquiry into the scandal at Mid Staffs hospital. They are backed up by Sir Norman Williams, a former president of the Royal College of Surgeons, who said: "A reluctance to acknowledge clinical concerns resulted in serious harm in Mid Staffs NHS Trust, so it is perhaps time . . . to accept there are significant problems and mount an investigation akin to the Francis Inquiry into Mid Staffs."

I'm told David Cameron is likely to make hay with all this later this week. He and Hunt will cite figures from a report by the House of Commons library, which points out that on pretty well every metric like A&E waiting times, ambulance times and cancer waits, Wales performs worse than England.

With the Tories campaigning on Labour's favoured turf, Miliband yesterday made a speech on the economy, seen as Cameron's strong suit. Seizing on comments made by the prime minister that he wants to see wages rise, Miliband said it was an admission of failure by Cameron that he has failed to raise living standards. Voters, Miliband suggested, would be "choking on their cornflakes".

"Suddenly he wants to say, after five years of denial, after five years of saying everything is fixed, suddenly he is now the guy who wants wages to go up," Miliband said. "It is frankly totally implausible and ridiculous." Miliband central are convinced that Cameron has made a major strategic error by conceding that living standards – a Labour strong suit – have declined. Tories would point out that George Osborne called long ago for a minimum wage of £8 and Boris Johnson is just as vociferous an advocate of a living wage as Labour are.

But that was all yesterday. The health-wealth role reversal has this morning, reverted to type. Labour are back on the NHS, issuing a report which claims that the government's failure to tackle mental health issues is costing the health service more than £3bn a year and has contributed to the overloading of A&E departments.

The people most likely to be choking on their cornflakes are Miliband's team, who are digesting the splash in the Mail on Sunday , in which the former mayor of Doncaster, a man who helped Miliband become the town's MP, claims that Miliband and Balls knew a year early that the economic crash of 2008 was coming and concealed this information from voters. Both urged prime minister Gordon Brown to call a snap Election in 2007 because 'the economy was about to fall off a cliff' and it was Labour's only hope of holding on to power, the paper says. Needless to say, this has given George Osborne reason to start banging on about the economy again. Plus ca change…

The claim, when laid out in 64-point headlines is a damaging one on the surface, though somewhat counterintuitive. If they had really been so sure of a crash surely there would have been an election in 2007 after all. Labour folk were on Twitter last night brandishing the hashtag #stuffEdknowsinadvance fondly hoping that their leader can predict next week's lottery results. They point out that the ex-mayor Martin Winter has left the Labour party.

Likely to be more damaging in the long run are the details which contribute to the notion abroad with voters that Miliband is an odd cove. When he was seeking selection, Miliband stayed with the Winter family, for a period of time the MoS delights in telling us was "nine and a half weeks" (images you don't need on a Sunday morning). During that time "he destroyed a carpet after accidentally setting fire to the office he was using – then gave the couple a £25 Muslim prayer mat as a replacement", "nearly missed a meeting with Brown when he locked himself in another house" and "was given a humiliating lesson in economics by the Winters' ten-year-old daughter after 'patronising' the Winter children".

Labour will go on a full election war footing today, with the shadow cabinet moving to the party's headquarters at Brewer's Green in London. The Observer reveals that Ed Balls and Harriet Harman have fought successful rearguard actions to join the top team of eight who will decide all Labour strategy. The Sunday Times says Labour are planning to replace tuition fees with a graduate tax.

There may be further trouble ahead for Miliband this week. The SNP is plotting a vote on the future of Trident nuclear deterrent. Labour is officially committed to replacing all four boats but the whips have told my colleague James Lyons that more than 50 of his MPs could oppose replacing the ageing submarine and missiles system. 

  • ComRes poll for The Independent on Sunday and Sunday Mirror has turned two common assumptions on their head this morning, suggesting that voters think more favourably of the Conservative party's brand than they do of David Cameron himself – or the Labour party.

  • A Panelbase poll for the Scottish Sunday Times has Labour narrowing the gap behind the SNP to 10 points, but still losing half their seats to the nationalists. And in the first of a regular series of gutsy predictions Peter Kellner, the doyen of British pollsters, suggests that the Tories will end up as the largest party in Westminster on the morning of May 8.

The good news for Miliband? Cameron might struggle to form a coalition and Miliband could still end up as prime minister. That should have Martin Winter choking on hiscornflakes...