Nurses express anger at long-lasting damage to health service under Conservatives, and concern over fashion 'surgery'

William Hague moved his party decisively behind the National Health Service yesterday with an endorsement of its public-service values and a pledge that a future Conservative government would not seek to privatise it.

The Tory leader widened his bid for the votes of Middle Britain, launched at the Conservatives' spring conference in Harrogate last weekend, by acknowledging nearly everyone relied on the health service and wanted to see it provide first-class treatment.

In a speech that combined contrition for the mistakes made during 18 years of Tory rule with condemnation of Labour's efforts to rebuild the NHS today, Mr Hague said it was an essential service that should be a source of great pride. "For too long, Conservatives have seemed to be afraid to engage in a debate about health because we thought it was Labour's issue. Not any more, because a Conservative Party which represents main-stream Britain will offer the country a National Health Service for all."

Mr Hague was addressing the Royal College of Nursing annual conference in Bourne-mouth, Dorset - the first Tory leader in living memory to do so - but his speech was clearly intended for a wider public. However, what some saw as his Damascene conversion was greeted with scepticism by the audience of 2,000 nurses. Although he was warmly applauded, an emergency resolution taken immediately after his speech showed 81 per cent remained "unreassured" that the health service would be safe in Tory hands.

Later, Christine Hancock, general secretary of the college, said the size of the vote showed how much the Tories had to do to convince nurses they genuinely supported the NHS. Nurses had delivered "a very strong message of the pain of the last few years as a result of the way the health service was organised".

Mr Hague pledged to match Labour's £19bn spending plans for health over the next four years announced in last month's Budget while seeking to nail the "desperate argument" that the Tories wanted to privatise the service.

He appealed to those who doubted his commitment to consider his background. "The families I grew up with in Rotherham, and the people I went to school with, rely on the NHS ... I still use the NHS as Leader of the Opposition." He said he believed in "a comprehensive National Health Service providing a full range of treatments to everyone in the country free at the point of delivery. Under the next Conservative government, there will be no privatisation, no retreat to a core service, no compulsory health insurance."

The task now was to consider how the extra cash pledged to the service should be spent. Mr Hague was scathing about Labour's waiting-list targets, which he said distorted clinical priorities. In their place he promised a "patients' guarantee" which would fix maximum waiting times based on clinical need. Health authorities unable to meet those set times would be required to pay for patients to be treated privately.

Responding to the speech, angry nurses pointed out that it was the Tory internal market introduced in the early Nineties that had created a service driven by finance, which had divided the trusts and damaged morale.

Mavis Harris, of Newcastle upon Tyne, said: "All the problems are directly linked to 18 years of Tory rule. Are you saying you have led your party down a road to Damascus and it has had the same effect as on St Paul?"

Mr Hague replied: "I am not saying everything was perfect in the past. I am saying we must learn from our past mistakes. We need a dialogue about the future and must not just think about the past."