The Sketch: Just rejoice, says Labour, our increase in self-congratulation is on target

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The Independent Online

John Reid introduced his new cross-cutting, over-arching 10-year integrated thanking strategy. Thanking on the NHS front bench has gone up 28 per cent since 2002, Congratulating has outperformed its service agreement and Paying Tribute is on course to meet its target in 2008. The Tories are woefully behind on these indicators, and Dr Reid is able to point this out.

"Just once," he pleads with a sub-vocal sob at the bottom of his larynx, "just once it would be nice for them to thank the NHS." His team back him up, regardless of personal cost. Rosie Winterton declared: "I think actually it's quite important that people do get involved and thanking people encourages the type of involvement we want to see."

The strategy ran off the rails a bit when Dr Reid started to thank our million health workers for their marvellous efforts, but it came out as "doing such a marginal job". This is where I make my joke about the Freudian slip but I'm jiggered if I can remember it.

Anyway: in common with other front benches in the decadence of this government, the duffers are now in the majority. Dr Reid and that clever young John Hutton are surrounded by Stephen Ladyman (smirker), Melanie Johnson (seat warmer) and Rosie Winterton (poppet).

"I certainly recognise there are challenges ahead," Ms Winterton says whenever she can. The chief challenge being to sit down before she says something silly. She succeeds in 37 per cent of occasions (up 4 per cent since 2003). Tim Yeo leading for the Tories produced a single stale question and sat down. Health funding, he said, had risen by 37 per cent and output by just 5 per cent. These statistics need much more work. They need to be dressed in anecdote and example, and freaked with indignation.

Mr Yeo is a slacker. He must stop slacking. He's been on a downward trajectory ever since his foot-and-mouth service. If he wants to pin this charge on the Government, there's no point in waving his languid fins around, he needs a nail gun. Goodness knows, opportunities abound. To get better exam results, government has made exams easier. To improve train punctuality they've allowed longer for them to arrive. And to justify spending on the NHS they've twisted, fiddled and tortured the figures until they render the required meaning.

The health service is like a large, half-inflated balloon; when you squeeze it in one place it bulges in another. Waiting times for diagnosis go down, waiting times for treatment go up. The solution, for Dr Reid, is to devise a new statistical apparatus, one that gives a more favourable picture of what's going on. Scenes from Bosch will thus be rendered as portraits by Gainsborough. If anyone can fix it, Dr Reid can.

"Is it New Labour drivel?" James Gray asked. It doesn't matter what he was referring to. If Mr Gray stays the distance to the Government benches (just nine years, now) he will be thanking Dr Reid for the greatest bequest any politician has made to the political class.