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Editorial Tuesday 15 October 2013: Hunt and Burnham dance to The Masochism Tango

‘Beat me!’ begged the masochist.

‘No’, replied the sadist.

Longstanding readers may recall my observation that health policy is BDSM by other means.

Latterly, the relationship between Health Secretary Jeremy ’Bellflinger’ Hunt and his shadow, Mascara Kid Andy Burnham reminds me of Tom Lehrer’s classic ‘The Masochism Tango’:
“I ache for the touch of your lips, dear,
But much more for the touch of your whips, dear.
You can raise welts
Like nobody else
As we dance to The Masochism Tango.”

The latest outbreak of Bellflinger-on-Burnham amour fou peaked (or perhaps even piqued) with a Twitter spat over Tory plans to give the Care Quality Commission complete political independence.

Yes, really. Hunt tweeted ”Shocking revelations on ‪@andyburnhammp’s attempts to cover-up failing hospitals. We’re legislating to make sure this can never happen again”.

This was a step too far for Burnham, whose lawyers served Hunt with a letter. Hunt replied to Burnham in another tweet, saying that this “was not a suggestion that you personally covered up evidence of poor care. Whatever our differences on health policy, I do not doubt your personal integrity”.

Hunt did not, however, as the conventions of Twitter would dictate, delete or edit his original accusation, which appears quite free of ambiguity in what it states.

This followed a significant row at the Conservative Party conference between Hunt and Baroness Young of Old Scone, the former chair of the CQC under Burnham’s time in office, when he accused her of saying she had been under pressure to cover up poor care. Barbara Young vehemently denied accusing Burnham.

Owning the Mid-Staffs blame game
Hunt and his team have made various efforts to make Labour wear the Mid-Staffs blame game. This is an interesting 180-degree reverse ferret from the statesmanlike position taken by the PM, Leader of the Opposition, SOS and shadow SOS following the launch of the Mid-Staffs Public Inquiry.

It is of a piece with Hunt’s various pronouncements as an NHS ‘patient’s champion’, from warning hospitals that ”coasting can kill”, to blaming the RCN for Mid-Staffs.

While there may be a grain of truth in these criticisms, it’s quite a small one, and doesn’t do a lot for the NHS in either morale or stakeholder management. The ‘cruising’ comment pissed off so many people that a cynic might wonder whether Hunt’s intention is to unite the NHS front line in dislike of him?

The patient’s champion role is partly an import from Hunt’s admiration of Michael Gove ‘continuity Blairite’ reforms in education; and partly all Hunt is actually left with legislatively after the Health And Social Care Act 2012 (which I don’t recall legisalating for weekly meetings in Hunt’s office with the leaders of NHS England, Monitor and the CQC. But they’re happening.)

If Hunt has been egged on (or indeed ordered) to try to ‘own the NHS’ by the Conservative’s strategy-prone Chancellor George Osborne, that would be curious. If Hunt is taking this line for that reason, then he is ill-advised. Osborne sees Hunt as a potential Tory leadership rival, and would be happy to send him on a kamikazee mission.

Which is what this is looking like in practice. The most recent data from Ipsos MORI’s political party health polling gives Labour a 15 percentage point lead.

No-One Here Gets Out Alive
If he is a political careerist, then Jeremy Hunt should be setting himself one clear objective: to get out of the DH politically alive.

DH has been partly or wholly responsible for ending the careers of Dobson, Milburn, Reid and Hewitt. Burnham is wounded by association, and Lansley committed the most grotesque act of policy self-harm since the Poll Tax.

Fascinatingly, the Tory attacks in the media during the Labour Party conference probably made Labour leader Ed Miliband determined that he would not sack Burnham in the reshuffle. (Miliband pointedly refused to guarantee Burnham’s shadow health job was safe at the Labour Party conference when directly questioned by a party member in a Q&A.)

This attack, once again, looked quite deliberate: some senior Conservative strategists believe Burnham remaining in post gives them an attack line on Labour over Mid-Staffs. If the CQC’s newly-activist inspections reveal current care scandals, expect Labour use that to spike the Tories’ guns.

Hunt is still given a lot of slack for quite simply not being Andrew Lansley. He is a better communicator – OK, in comparison with Lansley, he communicates quite effectively. But then, in comparison with Lansley, pebbles communicate quite effectively. Hunt is usually personally courteous, and appears bright.

Nevertheless, the impression that he really likes the NHS (and vice versa) is far from clear, given some of the tactics and strategy he and his team deploy.

This is no paean to The Mascara Kid, whose unsignalled, union-cash-wooing 2009 reverse-ferret on ‘NHS preferred provider’ still rankles with more than a few people.

Burnham is a good campaigner, as he showed over Hillsborough, and an effective opponent of the Health And Social Care Bill. He’s also broadly been proven right on his ‘Death Tax’ social care proposals at the 2010 election.

Yet the vision of a Labour health policy remains opaque, and there is not a doorstep ‘sell’.

Hunt faces the challenging prospect of being the Secretary Of State for Health for an NHS going into winter off the back of a ‘winter beds crisis’ in August, and with no new money coming. Burnham comes through the latest attacks bloodied and bruised, but not yet beaten.

A curious co-dependency is developing between the unlikely pair of The Bellflinger and The Mascara Kid, as they dance to The Masochism Tango.