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Last Updated: Sunday, 18 March 2007, 15:58 GMT
Audacious raid on Labour turf
By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News, Tory spring conference

David Cameron has mounted his most audacious raid yet on traditional Labour territory by claiming the Conservatives are now the party of the NHS.

David Cameron
The Tories are on the side of doctors, Mr Cameron said

You could almost hear the sound of jaws dropping at Labour Party HQ as details of Mr Cameron's closing speech at his party's spring conference were released to the media.

Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt branded the Tory leader's claims "absurd" in a television interview.

Health has always belonged to Labour.

Many of today's ministers cut their political teeth on protests against "Tory cuts" to the health service in the 1980s. The government has poured record amounts of cash into improving patient care since coming to power in 1997.

But now, Mr Cameron claims the roles have been reversed.

Stalinist

Labour ministers are still demonstrating outside hospitals but "shamefully", he said, it is against cuts to A&E departments and maternity wards inspired by their own government.

George Osborne
Mr Osborne likened Gordon Brown to the Sheriff of Nottingham

And it is the Conservatives, Mr Cameron claimed, who are on the side of hard-pressed nurses and doctors.

It is not that Labour does not care, he argued, it is that they don't know how to trust people to get on with their jobs.

Traditionally, many Tories have believed the NHS is a throwback to another era - a vast, unmanageable Stalinist monolith.

But now instead of breaking it up - or allowing patients to opt for private care instead as the Conservatives proposed at the last election - Mr Cameron has simply vowed to give it a more human face.

He is certainly not pledging to reverse any of Labour's major reforms. He would even extend Tony Blair's foundation hospital scheme.

Red tape

And his emphasis on public health, encouraging people to stop smoking, drinking and eating themselves into an early grave - via an NHS operating theatre - have echoes of many a Labour initiative, derided by the Tories at the time as "nanny statism".

And there is not likely to be any more money for health under the Tories. Labour claims there will be considerably less.

Mr Cameron is simply promising to cut the red tape, end the initiatives and "pointless reorganisations" and sack the management consultants who he claims have turned the NHS into a "pen-pushers' paradise".

He is attempting to strike a chord with health service workers and the public at large who say they have had enough of Labour's target-driven approach to everything.

Mr Cameron was cheered by junior doctors on Saturday, protesting against a lack of training places, when he pledged to start treating them like "human beings".

And by focusing on the NHS, Mr Cameron has found a useful stick with which to beat Gordon Brown, the man he expects to face at the next general election.

'Clunking fist'

Senior Tories have lined up to bash Mr Brown during this conference.

George Osborne compared him to the Sheriff of Nottingham dreaming of being "the dictator of England", to Francis Maude he was the "big clunking fist" - the roadblock standing in the way of Mr Blair's well-meaning reforms.

Mr Cameron refrained from an all-out attack on the chancellor in his closing speech, choosing instead - in another passage that will have caused incredulity at Labour HQ - to portray himself as a politician of substance and Mr Brown as a man obsessed with spin.

It is easy to pose for pictures on your bike or visit a glacier, said Mr Cameron, neatly inverting the most common criticism of his leadership style, saying it took guts to suggest a tax on flights.

Opinion polls suggest Mr Cameron has succeeded in shifting public perceptions of the Conservative Party on the environment.

He is now attempting to perform the same trick on the public services.

It is not clear how many people Mr Cameron expects to actively vote for the Conservatives because of their health policies.

But if he manages to shift the perception that the party cannot be trusted with hospitals and schools - and portray Mr Brown as an unfeeling machine politician obsessed with targets into the bargain - he will have achieved his objective.




VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
David Cameron attacks Labour over the NHS



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