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UK Politics

Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Commons chamber awash with the blood of scapegoats


In what seems like another age, but was actually February this year, David Cameron made a sober, non-partisan Commons statement on the Francis report’s exposure of the gruesome failings of the Mid Staffs Hospitals Trust.

Equally non-partisan, Ed Miliband thanked Cameron for the “tone” of the statement, and Cameron thanked Miliband back for the  “tone” of his reply, adding later that he hoped the report would not prompt a search for “scapegoats [or] fire up some phony political debate”. That was then. Yesterday we had Jeremy Hunt’s statement on the Keogh review of 14 hospitals with worryingly high death rates, one that the Government commissioned when Francis reported. The Commons tone was sulphurous, the political debate, phoney and otherwise, raged unabated, and the floor of the Commons chamber was awash with the blood of scapegoats.

You had to hope that affected patients and their relatives weren’t watching, since they  might just have been more  interested in what was going to be done about the problem than whose fault it was. In an act of no doubt superhuman restraint, Hunt  managed to get all the way to the second paragraph of his statement before his context-setting explanation  that “the last government left the NHS with a system that covered up weak hospital leadership. The last government also failed to prioritise compassionate care.” 

By the end, Speaker John Bercow had rebuked Labour MPs for giving a “running commentary” on Hunt’s remarks and more or less cut off Hunt himself after he had ignored the Speaker’s instruction not to “make a lengthy statement about events of the past that happened before he had responsibility”.

The Labour wagons, including Jack Straw and some fairly organised-seeming baying and barracking by backbenchers, had circled round the repeatedly attacked Opposition health spokesman Andy Burnham and the Labour MP Ian Austin had been obliged by Bercow to withdraw his “unparliamentary” accusation that Hunt had misled the Commons by blaming Labour for not supporting a “culture of transparency in the NHS”. 

It was hard to remember that this was all about real and all to recent examples in the Keogh report, such as mistreatment of dementia sufferers, “mismanagement of deteriorating patients” and “never events” – that chilling euphemism for life endangering clinical errors, or to be completely convinced – despite the admirable decision to impose “special measures” on the 14 hospitals – that Hunt would have the power, as he put it, to “sort out” cases in which Keogh had identified staff shortages as a cause. 

Earlier, Labour’s Cathy Jamieson  asked the Public Health minister, Anna Soubry, whether Cameron, Hunt, or the famous Lynton Crosby had overruled her by vetoing plain packaging for cigarettes? At least Hunt did not mouth “stupid woman” at Ms Jamieson as William Hague did last week. 

But the libertarian Tory MP David Nuttall applauded  the Government’s “decision not to have any extension of the nanny state”. Which suddenly made you wonder if the veto had been imposed to appease Cameron’s  backbench dissidents and not by Crosby at all. Hard, really, to know which would be worse.