Afghanistan smothers NHS for Brown

Tony Blair made good use of his easy rapport with journalists by instituting a monthly Prime Ministerial press conference. This was his chance to stand for an hour, answer questions on all subjects, and generally look good doing so.

Gordon Brown has an easy rapport with no one, especially not the hacks that file in to such events. But he tries none-the less and sometimes he does OK.

Today he took with him one of his prettier Ministers. Andy Burnham is young, smart, and attractive. Or so I’m told by several young women of my acquaintance. More importantly he is Health Secretary and so represents an issue on which Labour still holds ground. Between them they tried hard to steer the discussion in the direction of something of substance, or more accurately in the direction of Labour’s latest health policy.

They failed. No one at the press conference cared about the NHS. There is a war on after all. And that means people are dying while armchair generals pontificate as though they know something about the bewildering world beyond their own front doors.

So there was no examination of a promise to get all suspected cancer patients into diagnosis within a week. Likewise we heard nothing beyond the plain statement of fact that over forties would be given free check-ups every five years. No one asked the costs. No one questioned the benefits. Apparently cancer and public health are not big news.

Instead we heard about Jacqui Janes and the poor handwriting of the Prime Minister.

Now having always had a keyboard at the ready I sympathise with Gordon Brown. My handwriting is truly awful. But occasionally a hand written letter is more appropriate than size twelve Times New Roman type font. And no matter how bad the calligraphy, writing to the mother of a fallen soldier is one such rare occasion.

It is somewhat telling of Brown’s ability to alienate people that his fine gesture backfired. But today he benefited from the Sun’s miscalculated attempt to make things worse. Jacqui Jane had universal sympathy when she was a bereaved mum expressing her horror at the Prime Minister’s lack of thought. When she then plotted with the Tory supporting Sun to record his apologetic phone call and thus attack him further, most journalists lost interest.

So Gordon Brown found himself facing a political issue as Prime Minister, rather than a human interest story as the villain of the piece.

Reporters of course stuck with Afghanistan, which remains the big story in British politics now that Iraq is over. They asked about equipment but landed no blows. The PM simply reeled off well-rehearsed figures on higher spending and thousands of new vehicles bought.

Then they asked him about withdrawal and drew a surprisingly well presented explanation of the long term plan.

The PM first set out the rather common sense view that we went to Afghanistan for good reason. Having been threatened or attacked by terrorists there, forty-two countries rightly joined forces to fix that country so it wouldn’t happen again.

Then he invoked the one and only success of Iraq.

Gordon Brown used the term ‘Afghanisation’ to describe the district by district handover of power to local people. This was lifted straight from Tony Blair’s Iraqi-isation. And while the public know there are differences between those two countries, they also feel Iraqi-isation worked. Britain did get out without handing territory to rampaging insurgents. And we can largely thank the rather vague notion of Iraqi-isation for that one small mercy.

There were of course unrelated questions to swat aside. People groaned when the Express asked how Labour had failed on immigration. The Glasgow Herald asked about the upcoming Glasgow North by-election. And Australian broadcasters asked about climate change.

But for a man under pressure and with a lot of bad news to face down, Gordon Brown must have felt relieved that the press were somewhat off their game.

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