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By Peter Hoskin
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Jeremy
Hunt is setting out a “back
to basics”
approach to care in the NHS today, but he may just want to go
back to bed after reading the
main editorial
in today’s Sun. “The NHS is one of our proudest creations,”
it notes half-way through – so far, so positive – but then it continues, “But
Cameron’s insistence on ring-fencing its funds creates a climate in which
idiocy and incompetence go unchecked.” Ah.

The
problems with the NHS ring-fence were clear as soon as it was erected, before
the election. There was a mismatch between the Tory Opposition’s insistence that
“more” could be achieved for “less,” and their Brown-style argument that only
they could be trusted with the health service because only they would shield it
from cuts. Sure, they deployed demographic arguments too … but the politics
were still inconsistent.


And
it looks even more problematic today. Not only has the ring-fence failed to unambiguously
achieve what David Cameron intended with it – to convince voters that the
Conservatives are the party of the NHS – but it’s also now holding the Tory
leadership back. For starters, George Osborne could rather do with some of the
money rested in piles behind its bounds. And the attack on Labour over
Mid-Staffs was diluted because Mr Cameron couldn’t properly alight on a simple
point: that these tragedies happened despite rising and oft-boasted-about
spending.

This
is why – coupled with the Mid-Staffs scandal itself – it’s unsurprising to see
more and more raids on the ring-fence. There’s the Sun today, of course, but the
Telegraph also pulled out its power tools in an
editorial
before the Budget. Liam Fox spoke
out against
it in his own pre-Budget intervention, and John Baron does
likewise
in a piece for ConservativeHome today. These are just some
examples of many: the mood, which was never exactly kind towards the
ring-fence, has become suddenly more unfavourable.

So
why doesn’t the Tory leadership just scrap it? Partially, I guess, it’s because
they made a “read my lips” – or, rather, read
my poster
– promise to protect the NHS from cuts, just as they did with
pensioner benefits. They’re not going to be quick to abandon so prominent a
pledge, having seen what happened to Nick Clegg over tuition fees. And I
suspect another part of it is timing: they don’t want to withdraw money from
the NHS when the service and the public are still reeling from Mid-Staffs.
Their approach is instead to say, “Physician, here’s some cash, heal thyself.”

But
whether the ring-fence will hold after 2015 is a different matter entirely. It’s
noteworthy that, in his first interview after becoming Health Secretary, Mr Hunt wouldn’t
make any promises
on that front – not least because he couldn’t foresee the
economic future. If austerity is to last, then politics may have to catch up to
it.

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