It’s been a long time since the United Kingdom had a winter general election, and it has started to be suggested that one very good reason for this is that no government wants a poll to clash with that other calendar fixture: the NHS winter crisis.
Conservative activists traumatised by 2017 probably have no problem imagining how this might play out: bad news stories piling up as polling day looms and dragging the agenda remorselessly away from Brexit (or anything else the Government might want to talk about) and on to Jeremy Corbyn’s turf.
Yet whilst this prospect is certainly a real concern, it appears to be much more a question of messaging than of policy, for the simple reason that, according to Department of Health sources, the acute seasonal pressure on the Health Service does not ordinarily start to bite until almost two weeks after December 12.
Instead referrals tend to pick up after Christmas – driven in part by concerned people suddenly seeking treatment for infrequently-seen elderly relatives – and then peak in about February, starting to taper off again in March. So in practical terms, an election campaign would be much more likely to run headlong into a real NHS crisis on or around our next theoretical exit date, January 31.
Of course, this doesn’t mean the Government is out of the woods, for two reasons. First, one doesn’t need to be in the depths of a full crisis to suffer an unhelpful uptick in bad news stories – and the public would certainly not be assuaged by having it clarified that the worst was yet to come. Second, no large organisation ever runs perfectly and both both Opposition spin-doctors and the media will be quite capable of finding a ‘winter crisis’ if they go looking for one.
The Tories seem to have recognised this, and there is plenty of evidence of attempts both to tackle immediate pressures in the Health Service and to stay in at least part-control of the campaign narrative on the NHS. Furthermore, and whatever its long-term problems, the Chancellor’s new, more relaxed fiscal posture creates plenty of potential room for retail offers ranging from extra GP appointments and flu vaccinations to investment in adult social care.
So the plan seems to be there, and there is plenty of activity on the government side of things. But can the campaign pull off the execution? After this week’s shambolic start, that’s an open question.