“Your pandemic preparation during six years as Health Secretary was found wanting and inadequate.” Not a Labour criticism of the government, but a tweet from Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries directed at Jeremy Hunt after the latter announced he would be voting against Boris Johnson in Monday’s confidence vote. The quote formed the basis of Keir Starmer’s interrogation of Boris Johnson during today’s Prime Minister’s Questions as the Labour leader probed the Tory record on the NHS during the government’s ‘health week’.
Starmer stressed that blaming the issues with the health service on the pandemic “just won’t wash”, highlighting that cancer wait times have been rising for ten years and that NHS buildings have long be seen as a risk to patients. “The government’s response? Paint jobs and fix-ups. Pretending that’s the same as building new hospitals.” The Prime Minister dismissed the criticism as “satirical”, claiming that the opposition “don’t have a leg to stand on” because they opposed the increase to National Insurance contributions ostensibly intended to address the NHS backlog. “Raising taxes because you’ve failed to grow the economy isn’t a plan for the NHS,” the Labour leader told the Prime Minister.
“Pretending no rules were broken didn’t work, pretending the economy is booming didn’t work and pretending to build 40 new hospitals won’t work either,” he added. In a reference to the controversial changes Johnson recently made to the ministerial code, Starmer said: “As always with this Prime Minister, when he’s falling short, he just changes the rules and lowers the bar.” With the NHS, this has meant instead of addressing the surgery backlog the government has increased how long patients are allowed to be left waiting for surgery.
As has become customary for the Labour leader, Starmer again closed with examples of the human impact of the government’s failures. Today, he told the story of Akshay Patel whose mother died last year. Patel called 999 six times because his mother was struggling to breathe. During the final call – an hour after his first – he told the operator his mother had died. Starmer said even Johnson must admit Patel and others like him “deserve better” than a “wanting and inadequate government utterly unable to improve our NHS”.
Patel’s story brought Starmer’s argument home strongly. Johnson, despite the turbulent start to his week and ongoing uncertainty about his leadership, put on a confident front and was egged on by his frontbench. Beneath the bluster, however, his responses were repetitive and predictable. At one point, he told Starmer his line of attack was not “working”. Perhaps it was what he actually thought but, as an observer, it felt like he was scrambling around for what to say and came up short.