NHS fears re-raise 'nasty party' worries

Theresa May Image copyright Getty Images

Dangerous, possibly, very dangerous.

It's not just that health professionals and, more importantly, some members of the public are reporting that the strains on the NHS in England are intensifying, causing stress, anxiety, and in some cases, medical harm.

It's not just that the NHS is one of the few issues on which the Labour Party can unite behind Jeremy Corbyn to ramp up pressure on the prime minister.

It's not even just that the boss of the NHS in England, Simon Stevens, today drove coach and horses through Theresa May's consistent claim that the health service has received more than the public money it requested.

No, the building political pressure on the government over its handling of the problems in hospitals and elderly care is especially dangerous for Mrs May because, for years, the NHS has been a vulnerability for the Tories, with voters reluctant to trust them on health over Labour.

Remember this? David Cameron's "NH-Yes" slogan from 2007. It was slightly cringing as a mantra, but the political reasoning was straightforward.

Significant risk

As part of his efforts to modernise the Tories when he took over as leader, and to - as it was always described - "detoxify" the brand, trying to persuade voters the NHS was safe in his hands was critical.

Time and again it was an issue he turned to. Time and again, often criticised for it, he referred to his own family's experiences with the service as evidence of his personal commitment. That explained too the Tories' last-minute move to ring fence NHS spending, an enormously expensive commitment.

The risk for Mrs May now is that what seems to be happening in wards, corridors and on trolleys around England, could inflame old perceptions she herself so memorably identified, that some voters see the Conservatives as the "nasty party" - willing to let public services deteriorate, frankly, not to care.

She seems, right now, unwilling to acknowledge what many identify as a grave situation for the NHS. Her remarks today that there were "unacceptable" things happening only in a small number of places may come to haunt her.

At a time when the prime minister wants voters to believe that her government is concerned most of all with the welfare of ordinary families, allowing a perception to grow that she is ignoring the health service's problems is a danger indeed.

There's also a huge debate waiting to happen about what's realistic in the long term, which we've discussed before. But what's happening in the NHS in the here and now throws up significant political risk before those conversations can even get started.