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Nigel Nelson’s Diary

Submitted by on 01 Feb 2011 – 16:52

This may come as a surprise to those not engaged in politics on a daily basis, but politicians really do bend over backwards not to lie. And the verbal somersaults which sometimes result are a wonder to behold; ex-Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong’s “economical with the truth”, being the most famous. Even Australia’s former Labour leader Mark Latham may not have used Parliamentary language when he called opponents “a conga-line of suckholes” but it had a ring of truth about it.

Which was why shadow Immigration minister Phil Woolas was so surprised when election judges found against him. He’s an experienced and astute politician and never dreamed that what he thought of as in-your-face election leaflets would be considered such bare-faced lies they would cost him his career.

Politicians know they have to tell the truth, or a plausible version of it, if they are to convince electors to vote for them, so it is more than just parliamentary convention. I hope London student leaders who went on TV to denounce police violence after the tuition fee riots while refusing to acknowledge that of the demonstrators learned something from the derision with which they were greeted.

The nature of adversarial politics in this country, like our legal system, means that one side presents one set of facts to justify an argument while the other side presents another. Both sets of facts are true, but selective. And so they rarely tell the whole story. Which is where the political journalist comes in, sifting claim and counter claim to find the truth which lays somewhere in between.

You can cut unemployment by taking the jobless off the dole and putting them on sickness benefits as Margaret Thatcher did, or reduce NHS waiting lists by not putting patents on them. It will make certain official figures look better but it will not change the number of people who do not have work or are in need of surgery.

If I was to tell you that people who suffer from severe mental illness die on average 20 years sooner than those who do not and nothing more, you might assume that their higher mortality rate had something to do with their illness. So I was interested to see how Health minister Paul Burstow told the whole story behind that statistic in a written answer.

“Seventy per cent of those resident in mental health units smoke compared to 21 per cent of the general population,” he said. “And the majority of those deaths are smoking related.”

I was once taken to task by shadow Education Secretary Andy Burnham when he was a Health minister for having a go at the way Labour was then running the NHS. He wrote to me pointing out that his target for patients to wait less than four hours in A&E was being met more than ninety per cent of the time. This was an impressive claim, and absolutely true. But it did not tell the full story. It turned out there was at least one hospital where emergency patients were simply moved to another part of it if they were likely to go over the four hour deadline. This allowed the hospital to tick Burnham’s box, but had nothing to do with any improvement in patient care.

NHS Chief Executive Sir David Nicholson told Health Select Committee chairman Stephen Dorrell that his £20 billion restructuring of the health service “does mean reducing the number of beds and it does mean reducing the number of staff in some organisations.” It was an alarming statement, but he presented it as not necessarily a bad thing. So is there a wider truth here? The number of hospital beds has been steadily going down anyway since 1987 thanks to better surgical techniques and improved outpatient procedures, and the goal to have fewer long-term sick in hospitals and more being looked after at home must be right.

And if that is the aim of these reforms, the biggest reorganisation the NHS has ever seen and the most ambitious any health service in the world has so far attempted, then it should be welcomed. But Dr Peter Carter, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, and Dr Hamish Meldrum, boss of the British Medical Association, are suspicious because the changes are happening against a backdrop of the need for a quick fix to save money.

The question of whether we can move to a more mature, consensual politics in which common ground can be found will depend on whether there really is a new politics in town as David Cameron, Nick Clegg and latterly Ed Miliband contend. To this end the Labour leader’s party conference speech in Manchester was significant.

“I will be a responsible Leader of the Opposition,” he said. “When I disagree with the Government I will say so loud and clear. But when Ken Clarke says we need to look at short sentences in prison because of high re-offending rates, I’m not going to say he’s soft on crime. When Theresa May says we should review stop and search laws to prevent excessive use of state power, I’m not going to say she is soft on terrorism.”

I have never known a Labour leader praise government ministers in this way, particularly in front of an audience of party activists. And it’s going to be hard work convincing MPs – and the media – that politicians from different parties really can work together in the national interest. Perhaps the PM and Mr Miliband should begin by letting their babies Florence Rose Endellion and Samuel Stewart Thornton get together in a kindergarten coalition. Now that really would be the politics of the playground.

Nigel Nelson is political editor of The People