The NHS is a sinking ship and as the captain, at some point, the prime minister must go down with it
What do Boris Johnson en die NHS have in common? That may seem like a heretical question given that Johnson is a Tory and in our great national love affair with the NHS, the Conservatives have often assumed the role of pantomime villain, lurking round the corners of hospital wings, card-reader in hand, waiting to swipe the whole thing from our grasp.
But last week, Johnson clearly and unequivocally positioned himself as the long awaited pope of our unofficial national religion. Charges can be made about his character and supposed ineptitude, but the decision to appoint himself as the brave saviour of health and social care and purporting to tackle it “once and for all” is commendable. Egter, it is Johnson’s first and real mistake: the NHS is a sinking ship and as the captain, at some point, must go down with it.
The electorate loves both Johnson and the NHS, despite their flaws: both remain a work in progress. You could make the argument that neither – in their current state – is fit for purpose, but they are trudging on regardless of public criticism and a backlog of broken promises. Our blind affection for the NHS (no questions asked) also protects it from proper public scrutiny. Johnson can only dream of such immunity – sometimes, there just aren’t enough fridges.
His decision to break a manifesto pledge, raise National Insurance and tear up the Tory rule book in order to pour a vast sum of money into the NHS and social care system has left many scratching their heads. But Johnson’s allegiance is not to his party; rather, to himself.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Wat meer is, the electorate (and in particular the red wall) didn’t switch loyalty from Labour to Tory in 2019 – they voted for Boris Johnson. This affords him a distinct advantage over any opponent because he can play the game on his own terms. Moreover, he represents the party; the party doesn’t represent him. He can reinvent himself and swerve vehemently from left to right. Non-conformity is his USP.
You could be cynical and argue that Johnson has proposed a tax increase to protect and keep his core voters – the boomers – on side, but his affiliation to the NHS has been a constant theme throughout his recent political premiership. Vote Leave cleverly managed to position itself not only as a Brexit movement, but one preoccupied with the notion of saving the NHS. Inderdaad, one of the most enduring images from that campaign was the slogan on the side of a bus: “We send the EU £350 million a week – let’s fund our NHS instead”.
Ja, it has proven to be a dubious claim, but Johnson knows that a public admission of love for the NHS is an act of patriotism. In 2012, during his time as London Mayor, he described watching the Olympics opening ceremony with “hot tears of patriotic pride” as it included sequences dedicated to the NHS.
We also mustn’t forget that, only last year, Boris Johnson’s life hung in the balance after catching Covid-19 and this, surely, is instructing and possibly clouding his judgement. He stated soon after this tumultuous time that “the NHS is the beating heart of this country. It is the best of this country. It is unconquerable. It is powered by love.”
The problem is, it isn’t powered by love. It is powered by money and it requires vast amounts of it. The public are reasonable and know that the pandemic has created a significant challenge for the NHS so they will accept a rise in taxation. But if the money raised does not produce immediate results, the public will grow restless of Johnson’s project. Not to mention the fact that this government’s Covid strategy is undeniably linked to the exorbitant hospital waiting lists. The quasi-religious language of “protecting” and “cherishing” has unfortunately led to some effectively self-sacrificing their health for the perceived greater good.
Unless Johnson attempts to address systemic flaws within the NHS that are at times lethal, the public will quickly grow weary of paying over-the-odds for a service that isn’t delivering. His formula may be to act economically of the left and culturally of the right but public dissatisfaction with the NHS is growing and as its chief cheerleader, Johnson will be treated in the same regard.
We can only hope that when he promises to get to grips with social care, he means dealing with a system that allows thousands with autism and learning disabilities to be locked up in institutions where sedatives and solitary cells are commonplace.
Make no mistake about it, the biggest challenge for politicians at this moment is newfound public savviness. We have information at our fingertips like never before and it is not only shifting our interests, but also our allegiances. Johnson has managed to seize upon this masterfully but striving to make his career synonymous with the NHS is a mistake. The NHS belly is never full and our appetite for its perfection will never be delivered.