"We can fight the unbeatable foe. Right the unrightable wrong. Reach the unreachable star." Sound familiar? No, it’s not an excerpt from the latest episode of Glee, but the Prime Minister this week addressing the Royal College of Nursing during its annual conference in Bournemouth. Veering from Lesley Garrett’s rendition of The Impossible Dream in a back room in Downing Street to the musings of Blake on the human condition, whatever the assembled nurses had expected to hear this morning from Gordon Brown, we doubt many would have placed their money on this. Given the headlines, the word on everyone else’s lips was ‘cuts’, not cabaret.
The RCN has warned that it would be ‘disingenuous’ to suggest that cutting £20 billion from the health budget would allow business to continue as normal. Despite Andy Burnham’s assertion last week that efficiency savings would not be reliant on redundancies in the NHS, the RCN has estimated that between 5,000 and 35,000 jobs could be axed under the current cost-cutting plans.
Addressing the RCN congress, Brown skirted round the issue of cuts, instead focusing on traditional messaging around the NHS as a universal service free at the point of delivery. Brown called it "the best insurance policy in the world" – and paid tribute to the "angels dressed in nurses uniforms" up and down the country. In a very personal speech, in which he referenced the care he had received from the NHS for himself, his sons and daughter, he pledged that under Labour there would be "no ifs, no buts, no maybes" for the NHS, positioning it once again as a priority for Labour under the banner of "We love the NHS".
Given the potential pitfalls of the occasion, Mr Brown was no doubt more than relieved when his speech was greeted with rapturous applause and a standing ovation from his assembled audience. Despite its absence from the headlines for much of the campaign, the NHS is going to be an important factor in deciding the outcome of the General Election. It’s an issue of personal importance to a great number of voters, ranking second only to the economy in many pollsters’ list of public priorities. Whichever party can convince voters that they "love the NHS" the most will be in a good position come May 6. Brown’s speech is likely to be one of the happier moments of Gordon Brown’s campaign so far.