Cameron woe deepens over NHS dissent

Tory leader hit by MP's claim that health service would 'fit in Stalin's Russia'

David Cameron remained embroiled in a battle to maintain party unity last night after the Conservatives were hit with more apparent splits over the future of the NHS.

Senior Tories, shadow ministers and incoming MPs were all implicated in the row, which showed no sign of abating over the weekend. The Tory leader faces widespread opposition among his MPs to his pledge to ring-fence health spending should he form the next government.

A survey of Tory candidates likely to win seats at the next general election found that only one-third supported Mr Cameron's decision to make the NHS the "most immune" from cuts. The survey, carried out by the ConservativeHome website last month, included the responses of 144 Tory candidates standing in the party's top 220 target seats.

And Mr Cameron was hit by revelations that a sitting Tory MP had authored a report arguing that the NHS "would not be out of place in Stalin's Russia".

In a 2007 paper, Peter Bone, the MP for Wellingborough, added that "we have gone from having one of the best health services in the Western world to arguably the worst", which had "centralised and Stalinist management". Mr Bone could not be reached for comment last night.

His research paper had been written for the Cornerstone group of Tory MPs, which includes the shadow Treasury minister Greg Hands, the shadow Defence minister Gerald Howarth, and shadow Home Office minister Andrew Rosindell. The Cornerstone Group said on its website that "MPs on the Conservative front bench do not necessarily endorse any opinions expressed on this site that are not in their own name".

Mr Cameron has so far been unable to end speculation that he and his party were split over the NHS, which began when the Tory MEP, Daniel Hannan, appeared on US television to say that he would "not wish [the NHS] on anyone".

One of Mr Cameron's closest allies was forced on to the defensive over the issue yesterday. Michael Gove, the shadow Schools secretary, said he "emphatically disagreed" with Mr Hannan, after he was listed alongside the MEP as a co-author of a book highly critical of the NHS. The book argues that the health service "fails to meet public expectations" and is "no longer relevant in the 21st century". Mr Gove admitted that "one or two" of his colleagues did not back Mr Cameron's policy on the NHS, but dismissed suggestions that he was not behind his leader as "complete nonsense".

Last night, the Health Secretary, Andy Burnham, wrote to the Tory leader, calling on him to withdraw the whip from Mr Hannan and to force members of his shadow government to resign from the Cornerstone Group.

"On Friday you claimed that the Conservatives are the party of the NHS. I found that surprising," he wrote. "I understand why you want to make this claim to show your party has changed – but people will still have doubts. Therefore, to put some substance behind your claims, will you take formal action against those who do not endorse your views on the NHS?" Norman Lamb, the health spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said the Tory "commitments" to the NHS were "crumbling before our eyes".

Mr Hannan, on a family holiday in France, hit back at critics over the weekend. In his blog, he called Lord Mandelson "fatuous" for accusing him of wanting a US-style insurance system in Britain.

Twitterer-in-chief: Labour's new role

Labour hopes to capitalise on its successful use of new media by appointing an official "Twitterer-in-chief". Bristol East MP Kerry McCarthy has been tasked with teaching colleagues how to use the networking site. She has also been given the job of boosting the use of blogs, as well as advising the party on how to use new media for campaigning.

She told The Independent that top of her Twitter target list was Home Secretary Alan Johnson. "He would be great on it," she said. She also said that the Prime Minister's YouTube broadcast should not have appeared in the form it did. "He had the right idea," she said. "But someone should have looked at it before it went out."

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