John Woodcock: The Tories' health is failing quickly

To prosper at the top, you need to both remain in touch with public opinion and be strong enough to lead it.

John Woodcock: The Tories' health is failing quickly
John Woodcock: The Tories' health is failing quickly

So David Cameron will be worried by the way the past couple of weeks have played out.

The Prime Minister has been repeatedly behind the curve on the touchstone issue of bonuses for those at the top of troubled publicly owned companies. The Government was forced to play catch-up as Labour made the weather on both Stephen Hester at the Royal Bank of Scotland and the huge payouts that were on the table at Network Rail.

When you are floundering, you normally welcome the chance to switch focus as the next big thing comes along. But not when that thing is the Health Bill.

It is hard to exaggerate how badly the issue of health has been handled since the election. Serial bungling has unravelled the meticulous work Cameron led in opposition to make the NHS a safe issue for the Tories.

Back then, the PM remarkably achieved a poll lead on what had traditionally been natural Labour territory. But only two years into Government, the NHS risks becoming as toxic for the Tories as it ever was.

The 'listen and pause to reflect' PR exercise has failed: far more health professionals are against the proposals now than they were before it began.

And the fact he made such a virtue of listening means Cameron may struggle to get traction with his latest tactic of comparing himself to Tony Blair, who pushed through difficult reforms in the face of opposition.

But what is most striking is the way open season seems to have been declared on Andrew Lansley. The Times journalist Rachel Sylvester, whose columns have long stirred up trouble at the top of Government, this week reported a furious Number 10 source saying the Health Secretary 'should be taken out and shot'.

Now there was occasionally corrosive negative briefing from the centre during the Labour years. But even at the worst moments, there would have been pressure to sack someone for a gratuitous attack like that.

Things cannot go on like this. But how the Government gets out of the hole it has dug itself is not clear.

John Woodcock is Labour MP for Barrow and Furness, and a former spokesman for ex-prime minister Gordon Brown.

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