It is general election night, 7 May 2015. Sweating in the springtime heat, David Cameron lines up next to his fellow Witney hopefuls, inpatient to hear the inevitable result, that will allow him to hurry back to Westminster to prepare for what the results nationwide may bring. Then the unthinkable happens. A wild card candidate, a cancer specialist from a Middlesbrough hospital, standing on a platform of saving the NHS from cuts, privatisation and patient charges, edges the vote and unseats the Prime Minister from the constituency seat he held in 2010 with a majority of nearly 23,000.
This is not, Dr Clive Peedell admits, the likeliest of scenarios. But since the co-founder of the National Health Action (NHA) Party announced his intention to run against the Prime Minister at next year's election, it's one that he has at least had to consider: "If I was to win, and I accept it's unlikely, I'd have to give up my job, and I'm prepared to do that. I really don't want to be a bloody politician, but something has to be done."
Reluctant as he is, Dr Peedell and the NHA Party have the potential to become, if not a major electoral force, then an intriguing and unpredictable new threat to the main parties. The NHA will target between 20 and 30 seats at the next election. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and his predecessor Andrew Lansley will all be challenged in their constituencies by an NHA candidate – in most cases a practising doctor. Constituencies where local hospitals are under threat or have suffered cuts or sell-offs under the coalition are also on the list. Labour MPs on the Blairite end of the spectrum could also face a challenge, but Dr Peedell confirmed his party had no intention of splitting the left-wing vote – believing that "the only realistic option to defend the NHS" is a Labour government.
Dr Peedell leads the NHA alongside co-founder Richard Taylor, the doctor who contested and won the Wyre Forest parliamentary seat in 2001, on a platform of restoring A&E services at Kidderminster hospital. He held the seat for nine years – winning the respect of constituents and parliamentarians alike during his time in the House. It's an example Dr Peedell hopes might be repeated.
"If we can catch a public wave of anger, a people's movement when people understand their NHS is under threat, they will get behind us. If we catch that wave of public opinion we can win seats," he said.
At 41, and in the prime years of a successful medical career, he is not a likely political activist. He rose quickly through the ranks of the NHS, reaching consultant level within 10 years of leaving medical school and taking up a post as an oncologist at the James Cook Hospital in Middlesbrough. It was the coalition's health reforms, set out in the Health and Social Care Act 2012, that galvanised him into action. In a letter to this newspaper two years ago, he and nearly 250 other doctors said that the Act amounted to no less than the "abolition of the NHS in England".
Witney will mark a return to roots for Dr Peedell, born and schooled in nearby Oxford. Though he lives and works in North Yorkshire, he still has ties to the area. His brother is a solicitor in Witney and will support him as electoral agent.
Married with two children, he admits that juggling family life with a medical career and political aspirations has been hard work. But, intriguingly, he sees his political role as an extension of his medical one.
Real-terms cuts to NHS funding and the increasing incursion of the private sector are "bad for our health", he says. "It's a duty of doctors to oppose it – it's against our professional values and standards. This is what our party stands for.
"I've got fire in my belly about this. It goes right to the heart of the doctor-patient relationship. If you want to introduce the private sector into a healthcare system you need a market system. The ideology underpinning markets is anti-professional for a doctor. As soon as money comes into the equation it really affects the doctor-patient relationship. That's what I think happened at Mid Staffs. We had a hospital with financial targets – patient care becomes a secondary issue."
The party will also field candidates in May's local and European elections. The comedian Rufus Hound is standing for the EU Parliament, as is Dr Louise Irvine, the GP who led the campaign to save Lewisham hospital's A&E services from closure.
When Hound appeared on Jonathan Ross's ITV chat show in January and talked about his decision to stand ("the NHS is being privatised and I'm looking round for who's stepping forward and telling people and nobody is"), he got cheers, and the NHA earned 8,000 new Twitter followers overnight. It's clear this kind of thing gets through to people – they just need to be told what is happening, Dr Peedell says. Privatisation and fees for patients are "creeping" in.
He has a point. Billions of pounds worth of NHS contracts now go to private providers, with bigger and bigger chunks of the health service going up for sale all the time. The process began under Thatcher, continued under Blair, and has accelerated under the coalition. In Staffordshire, the contract to run the region's cancer care is up for grabs, worth nearly £700m.
It is also a little-known fact that even NHS hospitals are now legally entitled to make up to 49 per cent of their income from paying patients – before the reforms it was only 2 per cent. Right-wing think tanks such as Reform have called for "a debate" on whether the NHS should consider charging for GP appointments and some elements of hospital care. Dr Peedell is convinced that these groups are little more than stalking horses for future Tory policy.
The fact there hasn't been a public outcry already is, he believes, down to a combination of clever spin from the Government, a failure on the part of the media (in particular the BBC) to grasp the scale of the change, and the fact that it is happening slowly.
"If they tried to do it overnight there would be people out on the streets," he says. "Our duty is to inform people that these things are happening."Reuse content