Senior ministers are privately urging Tony Blair to carry out a full-scale reshuffle to repair the damage to the Government inflicted by the row over cuts in nursing jobs which has left Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary, looking vulnerable.
The Prime Minister is being pressed by some of his most senior allies in the Cabinet, including Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, to go on the offensive with a wide-ranging reshuffle to freshen up the Government.
The call came as Labour backbench rumblings started against Ms Hewitt over her handling of the NHS cuts. "Many people don't like her nannying attitude," said one Labour MP.
"They would go to the wall for Tessa Jowell [the Culture Secretary] but not for Patricia Hewitt."
Ms Hewitt will tell angry nursestoday that there can be no turning back from the reforms she has ordered on the NHS which have led to nurses facing redundancy. She will tell the Royal College of Nursing conference in Bournemouth that she understands the concern of nurses at the threat of job losses, but the reforms are needed to protect the long-term future of the NHS as a tax-based system.
Those close to Ms Hewitt said she realised she would be given another hard ride by the nurses after the booing and heckling she endured at the Unison conference. "She is going to adopt the same tactic with the RCN of saying she is not going there to lecture them, she is there to listen," said a ministerial source.
"Rather than a long keynote speech, she will make a short speech and then take questions."
Ms Hewitt will say that the claims that more than 1,000 nurses could be facing the sack are exaggerated, and she will insist that most jobs will go through natural wastage as nurses leave. She will remind the nurses that they have enjoyed pay rises of 55 per cent since Labour came to power in 1997.
However, the mood among nurses is so alienated that an upbeat message by the Health Secretary is likely to cause more jeers today by nurses who have accused her of being in denial about the impact of the cuts on patients.
She will try to sweeten the pill by announcing that she has asked Chris Beasley, the chief nursing officer, to work with the RCN in helping nurses to adapt to nursing in the community when wards are closed because more people are being treated at local level, rather than in district hospitals.
Yesterday, Ms Hewitt and Tony Blair launched a campaign for healthier eating and exercise to prevent more people having to seek treatment on the NHS. Mr Blair donned a navy Nike tracksuit and a pair of trainers to promote the "small change, big difference" initiative.
Clutching a bottle of water as he toured a gym, he said he worked out at the Downing Street gym three or four times a week, which helped to relieve the stress of his job. "I actually take a lot of exercise now and I make time for it, I think it is important to make time for it," he said.
He said he ate more fruit and vegetables than he used to, and was trying to drink more water. Mr Blair appealed to others to make such small changes - for example, taking the stairs rather than the lift.Reuse content