A tribal beauty contest devoid of any new ideas

Published by The i paper (18th July,. 2022)

A few hours before the first Tory leadership debate was broadcast on Channel 4, I was talking to a terrific palliative care team. At one point, the doctor said in matter-of-fact manner that there was no point trying to call an ambulance these days since it might take up to five hours to arrive. I was astonished. We were talking in the centre of London, not a remote rural area. Yet this dismal situation comes amid routine stories of staff shortages, handover delays at hospitals, more people using emergency services due to an inability to access GPs, even avoidable deaths among waiting patients. The data shows average ambulance waiting times even for serious conditions is now more than double the target.

Clearly the health service is creaking under pressure. Partly this is the legacy of Covid-19. But it is also tied to the collapsing social-care system, which Boris Johnson promised to fix but remains trapped in a catastrophic crisis that is devastating millions of families. Accident-and-emergency waiting times are at record levels. Patient satisfaction is plummeting. Delayed diagnosis for conditions such as cancer will cause thousands of preventable deaths, leaving doctors to lament over lives they might have saved with earlier treatment.

Yet the picture is more complex than presented by shroud-waving medical unions. NHS funding has risen sharply since the Tories came to power in 2010. According to the King’s Fund think tank, Britain entered the Covid crisis spending a similar slice of its economy on health to comparable nations – yet treatment outcomes for many major conditions are significantly worse. Health soaks up a rapidly growing proportion of day-to-day public spending in our ageing society and amid stunning scientific advances: rising from less than a third in 2010 to a predicted 44 per cent by 2024. Yet still we see a succession of patient safety scandals – and these tend to harm or kill older, female or disabled citizens.

Clearly health is a major issue. Yet when it came up in the first broadcast leadership debate, the discussion was unbearably banal. Rishi Sunak thanked doctors for “heroic” work and said he “really believed” in the NHS as proved by his funding. Kemi Badenoch said her chipped tooth showed the access difficulties in dentistry, then said the NHS needed more efficiency. Tom Tugendhat expressed gratitude to the NHS for treating injured army colleagues and delivering his children. Liz Truss said the NHS did “a fantastic job” during the pandemic but “we need to work as hard as we can to reduce the backlog.” Penny Mordaunt at least seemed to have some grasp of issues, although offered little more than calling for fewer caveats on spending while stating the obvious by saying innovation and prevention were vital.

Badenoch concluded by saying “there must be things we can do differently that would improve how we can tackle these issues”. But surely the point of a leadership contest is to present ideas and reforms for tackling such problems rather than simply spewing out a stream of cliches and inanities? This battle is, after all, picking our nation’s next prime minister. Badenoch still looks the most impressive candidate on the party right, yet she is such a blank sheet that after five years in parliament and serving in three ministerial offices her position on anything to do with China – the single most important foreign-policy issue – could not be discerned by a group of analysts monitoring relations with Beijing.

She does, however, have strong views on gender-neutral toilets; indeed, makeshift “Mens” and “Ladies” signs were taped to the doors at her launch event. This rammed home her strident opposition to gender self-identification, an issue seized on by culture warriors on the right despite being backed by the Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee and implemented in about 20 countries including Ireland and the United States. As a consequence, this subject has soaked up far more space in the leadership struggle than, say, the decrepit state of health and care systems or how to handle the rise of China under a belligerent nationalist dictatorship that are, dare I say, far more important to the future well-being of our country.

This battle for power has been a dispiriting spectacle so far – a tribal beauty contest scarred by smears and snide asides but devoid of serious policy ideas, let alone inspirational signs of fresh vision. They talk of delivery but ignore that Tory failures in office have resulted in low pay, a sluggish economy and struggling public services. The problem is that the candidates are seeking first the votes of 358 Tory MPs, so reliant on backroom deals and job offers struck secretly in Westminster, and then pitching to a party membership that is overwhelmingly white, older, male, middle-class and concentrated in safe Tory seats. So they strike hardline poses on migration, posture about tax cuts, pretend Brexit is a success, polish up their life stories and shy away from the toughest questions confronting our nation.

This selection process, on display for the third time in six years, is symptomatic of a floundering political system. It exposes a party searching desperately for a saviour after choosing a woman who proved not up to the job, followed by a man who was untrustworthy for high office. It is contemptuous of the electorate to impose a prime minister in this manner, especially when modern party leaders adopt a presidential style and determine election outcomes – as seen clearly in 2019 when Johnson cut through the Red Wall and Jeremy Corbyn repelled moderates. People may have strong views on whether Tugendhat won the first debate, Truss was a disaster or Sunak will emerge victorious. But few voters will be left inspired by this next wave of leaders jousting for power, let alone feel reassured over the future of our country.

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