How the NHS strike could make or break Jeremy Hunt

Written by David Herdson on 12 January 2016 in Opinion
The health secretary stands to lose in the eyes of the public if the dispute with doctors drags on. But Tory colleagues do not want to see him backing down too early. 

Today’s NHS strike had to go ahead. After the BMA postponed action once, to have done so again would have looked like a lack of resolution.  All the same, any strike in the NHS is high risk to both the government and those taking action, particularly when it involves those directly providing care.

That’s why, as with most strikes in the public sector, who backs down most will not depend on a direct conflict between workers and management as to who can inflict or sustain most pain; too many members of the public would be caught in the crossfire and both sides’ reputations would suffer unacceptably. Instead, it’s a contest for public opinion and one that will be won largely by the framing of the question.

For the medics, the battle needs to be seen as doctors versus politicians: the former are trusted, the latter are not. On the other hand, if the government can present the case as the public versus trade unions then it’ll be seen very differently. 

A YouGov survey (from November but probably still relevant) found that 83% of the population ‘trusted’ family doctors, against just 20% for leading Conservative politicians and 26% for trade union leaders.  As things stand, there’s strong backing for the strikers: according to IpsosMORI, 66% back their current campaign.

So far, so good for the doctors.  However, there are a few straws in the wind that should make them wary of pushing their luck. 

Firstly, that Mori poll also shows support dropping by a third if emergency cover is included in the action, reducing the net support from +51 to just +5.  The scheduled February strike is proposed to take that precise next step. 

Secondly, the issues for the strike are seen as ‘work’ and ‘pay’.  If the dispute becomes more overtly political, then that support is likely to wither. 

Thirdly, a YouGov poll last week found rather less support with only a net +17 in favour. Opinion, it seems, is not fixed. 

Fourthly, as ever, there is the risk of ‘events’ intervening. One such ‘event’ – or set of events – are the scheduled London Tube strikes, which by coincidence are also about the provision of a 24/7 service and the terms and conditions associated with its introduction.  It’s also by a set of workers who, against the average, are not at all badly paid. 

There is clearly the risk of cross-contamination if the disputes overlap and particularly if politicians or other activists try to cite both as weapons against the Conservatives. 

In fact, it’s more than a risk: it’s a near certainty. Too many activists in unions as well as groups like Momentum are keen to use the fights to take on the Tories.  That said, Labour has been remarkably quiet so far about the doctors’ strike though it’s unclear whether that’s by accident or design. Either way, the longer the dispute goes on, the harder it will be to keep Jeremy Corbyn and his allies away from picket lines.

And what of the other Jeremy, the secretary of state for health?

He stands to lose in the eyes of the public if the dispute drags on for any reason other than union militancy. He also stands to lose in the eyes of his colleagues if he backs down too early.  In a post-referendum reshuffle, he could easily be out of the cabinet altogether. 

On the other hand, it could be the making of him.  For the Conservatives, the NHS is not the icon that it is for Labour; it’s simply a means of delivering healthcare.  If he can persuade the public that he is on their side, and that it’s the medical establishment standing in the way of improved healthcare (for whatever reason, misguided or malign), and face down the unions then not only will the strikes falter in the face of rising public opposition but his will be a star in the ascendency.  He will have also gone a long way to deweaponising the NHS.

With the European referendum highly likely to be this year, that matters.  Hunt is a Eurosceptic who may well campaign for Leave, something which also has the potential to add either a booster or an anchor to his career.  Indeed, should Leave win, Hunt would be very well-placed for the Tory leadership contest that would likely follow provided he’s resolved his current local difficulty first.  High stakes all round.



David Herdson is a political analyst who writes a regular column on the Political Betting website.

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