Mr Lansley's tough assignment

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Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley is speaking here in a couple of hours. I will post again after I’ve heard what he has to say. He has a tough job. In a system as big as the NHS there will always be problems, but Alan Johnson has less to worry about than any of his recent predecessors.

Patient satisfaction rates are at an all-time high, long waits – for so long the scourge of the NHS and the target of its critics – have been virtually abolished; improved scrutiny and data collection has made it much harder to hide bad practice and failing management (which was previously rife); and there is even progress on hospital infection rates. At a time when the public and the media are loath to give Whitehall any credit, there is a general acceptance that the Department of Heath is managing the threat of swine flu effectively.

Of course, the real challenge facing the NHS is the coming squeeze in public spending. Will a system which has been developed in the context of substantial real term increases cope with standstill budgets? I don’t know whether Mr Lansley plans to broach the spending issue today but it’s difficult to see the upside for him of doing so.

The Conservatives have to plug away on health - emphasising their commitment to the founding principles of the NHS and to tackling health inequalities helps to cement their moderate, modernising image. But health has slipped down the voters’ list of priorities – the number telling Ipsos-MORI it is the most important issue facing Britain is as low now as it has been for over twenty years.

Andrew Lansley will no doubt say this morning that he wants to challenge the Government on its record on the NHS, and, of course, there are things that could be a lot better. But the reality is that Gordon Brown would like nothing more than for health to be the battleground of the next election.

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