Tony Blair attempted to wrest the initiative from the Conservatives in the local election campaign yesterday, by claiming that William Hague's health policies represented a "tax on the elderly".
In a speech to Labour council leaders in Watford, the Prime Minister said that Tory plans to extend private health insurance to hip and cataract operations would hit the elderly hardest. Mr Blair's warning was part of a new Labour strategy to persuade voters to turn out at elections by highlighting the danger posed by Tory policies on health, education and the economy.
With the Conservatives expected to win hundreds of seats in the council elections on 4 May, Labour fears such results could give Mr Hague a "springboard" for the general election.
Mr Blair indicated the key battle lines for the next election would be the Tory tax guarantee, their threat to scrap the New Deal and to abolish the literacy and numeracy hour in schools. Signalling the switch of emphasis to fears about the danger of a Tory victory, the Prime Minister adapted the Labour Party slogan of "A Lot Done. A Lot to Do" by adding the words "A Lot to Lose".
"That is our message. A lot to lose in health and education, where the Tory tax guarantee is in fact a spending cuts guarantee ... a lot to lose for the country by taking us back to the drift and division that we only too recently left behind," Mr Blair said. In a bid to win back pensioners' votes, Mr Blair pointed out that Liam Fox, the Tory Health spokesman, had advocated using private health insurance for routine operations such as hip, knee, hernia and cataract operations. Mr Blair said: "The vast majority of these treatments are undergone by elderly people. They could not possibly afford the private insurance in place of NHS treatment for these types of NHS operations. It is effectively a tax on being old."
Quoting Aneurin Bevan, the founder of the NHS, Mr Blair added that extending private health insurance would strike at the principle of the health service and create a two-tier service. The Prime Minister said: "That is why we believe the path of improvement and modernisation is right and driving people into private insurance is completely wrong."
Mr Blair stressed he needed Labour councils to work with the Government to protect and build on the changes already achieved in society since the party came to power in 1997.
Mr Blair admitted that Labour-run town halls had once had a poor image, - "in truth, sometimes deserved" - but claimed that the party's councils now had the lowest average council tax and won the lion's share of Charter Marks for quality services.
The seats up for election next Thursday gave Labour its second best ever local government performance when they were last contested in 1996 and Millbank officials are claiming that the Tories need to win at least 500 seats to show any progress.
The independent election analysts Rawlings and Thrasher have estimated that the Conservatives need to win at least 400 seats to get a better vote than they obtained at the last general election.
Dr Fox later rejected Mr Blair's "tired and boring lies" about Tory health policy, claiming that they were a smoke screen to disguise how badly Labour was failing the elderly.
Dr Fox said the Government had abolished concessions for older people who chose private healthcare, given them a pension increase of just 75p and had presided over a system where stories of abuse and neglect of elderly patients were now common.