Listening to Jeremy Hunt yesterday in the Commons, you couldn’t help sympathising with Andrew Lansley, the man he replaced, now sitting beside him on the front bench. Lansley knew a lot about the NHS but was very bad at communicating. Hunt is an expert in communication, and — well, let’s not go any further for now.
Certainly his new “incredibly important document for the NHS” as he modestly described it, was fine insofar as it went. Even his opponent Andy Burnham conceded it was an “impressive wish list” before unleashing a denunciation of cuts in nursing staff that generated more heat than light. But with no specific targets, and a gentle pushing away of the health service from Whitehall, there was also unmistakeable sense of a Minister expertly ensuring that he would not be blamed for any failings come the election.
But just as Hunt manfully attended to the daunting task of portraying his party as the protector of the NHS, so earlier, during questions to the Justice minister Chris Grayling, Labour teamed up with the Tory Right to portray the Government as hopeless softies on law and order.
The rebellious Tory Philip Davies pointed out “that the longer people spend in prison, the less likely they are to reoffend.” This factually unimpeachable proposition (if criminals are very old indeed when they are released - or actually in gaol – they are presumably less likely to comit crimes on the outside ) was enthusiastically picked up by Labour’s Jenny Chapman who attacked the government for abandoning “indeterminate sentences”, which as she omitted to mention had been roundly condemned last year by the European Court of Human Rights.
There were a few distractions. In one of those frisson-packed inside the beltway moments, Tory backbencher Ian Liddell-Grainger sought — and got — Grayling’s condemnation of innocent people being “framed” by social media - presumably a a dig at the Speaker’s wife Sally Bercow who – among others – has apologised for mentioning the much traduced Sir Alistair McAlpine in a tweet.
And even Labour could not quite compete with an unusual proposal from Tory backbencher David Ruffley on the “community payback” sentences which have replaced the now unfashionably lenient-sounding community service orders. What was needed was “offenders in the community with orange dayglo boiler suits with the word ‘offender’ on the back to inculcate some sense of shame...”
Responding to this startling plan to turn our open spaces into mini-Guantanamos, Grayling said, only a little guardedly, that he had a “good deal of sympathy” with his Honourable Friend. Years ago Ruffley was a special adviser to Ken Clarke, the man Grayling replaced to move criminal justice to the right. You could only guess what his old boss would have thought.