Change of plan
David Cameron was seeking to show he was back in charge, and back on top of the agenda by highlighting what he said was the threat to 29 District General Hospitals in England. Certainly, the NHS is reorganising lots of their services and thousands of people around the country are involved in campaigns to try to make sure that departments don't disappear from their local hospitals. There is public anxiety out there as I saw in Worthing yesterday where the health authority is consulting on plans that include the possible downgrading or transfer of some departments.
But as I wrote yesterday, the party presented varying amounts of proof for each individual site on how certain any closures were. Some are just at the consultation stage, some possible proposals leaked by e-mails. Few seemed set in stone.
In the last two hours, one of David Cameron's own MPs has expressed his unhappiness at how the party used the information. Henry Bellingham, Norfolk North West MP has apologised unreservedly to worried staff and patients at his local hospital, the Queen Elizabeth in King's Lynn, for the fact that the party claimed maternity services there were at risk when he says they are not.
He says the party should have contacted the hospital's chief executive before putting the information out and that "there are lessons to be learnt for opposition parties and governments" about making such claims.
It's also emerged that the Altrincham General, where the party's dossier claimed maternity and A&E were at risk, has neither a maternity unit, nor an A&E, but a minor injuries unit.
The party has just admitted that they made a mistake on that one, and meant to refer to Trafford Hospital. It's not yet clear what the situation is there. But they are standing by their other claims, including the hospital in King's Lyn where they say a consultation that could include the closure of units is still going on.
David Cameron himself has just told the BBC that he stands by the document, apart from that mistake. He says every one of the other hospitals mentioned is under some form of consultation or threat of losing departments. He says also there are probably other places that the party could have included, and he wants the government to clarify what will happen to them. The problem with that is that while of course, the Department of Health centrally will be involved in these decisions, they are supposed to be decisions that are made locally, not by central government.
Now clearly there are big reorganisations going on in the health service. And that potentially includes the closure or downgrading of maternity and A&E units in district generals around the country. Naturally that would be a big concern to patients and staff in that area, and a political headache for the local MP. But any party making claims that are then directly disputed, especially by one of their own MPs, is on shaky ground.
Yesterday was meant to be David Cameron's comeback. As party leader he has devoted a lot of time and effort to the health service and no doubt there is a lot of political mileage in any potential closure. It's known in Westminster as a seat-loser for constituency MPs if a hospital shuts on their watch. But run a campaign like this with inaccurate information and any politician is asking for trouble. Mr Cameron is out visiting more district hospitals this afternoon. I wonder if he now wishes he was somewhere else.