Tories break consensus on NHS funding

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THE LONG-HELD political consensus that supports spending higher amounts of tax revenue on the NHS is to be broken by the Tories.

Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Secretary of State for Health, is to scrap the convention at the Conservative party conference amid grassroots demands for tax breaks to be restored for private medical insurance for pensioners.

Ms Widdecombe will use the platform on the first day of the conference to challenge the consensus, which has lasted for half a century on the need to rely on continued increases in spending from taxation to finance Britain's health service. "There simply hasn't been a grown-up debate. I want to start one," she has told friends.

She is planning to risk causing controversy by questioning whether some items such as in vitro fertilisation should be available on the NHS, and whether better-off patients should be given incentives to pay for private health care.

Some Shadow Cabinet hawks are privately pushing for a more radical approach, with a switch to private health insurance, and dropping John Major's commitment to increase spending in real terms on the NHS. But William Hague, the Tory leader, is more cautious, and Ms Widdecombe believes she is steering a middle course between the hawks and the doves, who want to retain the status quo. She will rule out introducing NHS charges for visiting the GP or for better bedrooms in hospitals.

Ms Widdecombe gave a clue to the new thinking when she said on BBC radio: "We have just got to be absolutely honest and say to the nation what is the truth, which is the NHS cannot meet every last demand."

She has told colleagues that she is not proposing the privatisation of the NHS by forcing all patients to take out private health insurance, or dismantling the NHS as a national service, free at the point of delivery. But she is determined to open an attack on Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health, for allegedly trying to deceive the nation by pretending that the NHS can continue to provide a comprehensive service for all illnesses, and all new forms of treatment, regardless of cost, financed entirely out of taxation.

Mr Dobson's team believe she is making a mistake that will rebound disastrously on the Conservatives at the next election. "This is the day when the Tories turned their backs on the NHS," said a source close to Mr Dobson.