Unhappy Hewitt feels force of nurses' fury

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Indy Politics

The 2,000 delegates at the Royal College of Nursing conference tend to be white, female and middle-aged, so Patricia Hewitt should have found herself among like-minded people.

But from the moment she walked into the conference hall, it was clear that she was not among friends.

Student nurses had put a coffin outside the front door and were tolling a bell for "NHS - Rest in Peace". Most of the audience wore T-shirts proclaiming "Keep nurses working; keep patients safe" and many waved banners.

She told the audience she had come to listen to them, but as she began a speech that was at times word-for-word what she had told the Unison conference two days earlier, the mood worsened.

Ms Hewitt's advisers had warned her the mood was militant, but she seemed combative rather than apologetic, sticking to claims that the NHS was in better shape than it had ever been. "You shout at me if I praise you and shout at me if I don't - fine," she told the conference.

After nine questions, she stalked off the stage to a few claps but mainly silence. It was an ignominious retreat in face of a moderate union that decided to roar.