Tories are swearing by the National Health Service (NHS), promising to spend more on public health in deprived areas. But these compassionate conservatives could change in office, some commentators say.
Launching the party manifesto, David Cameron claimed that the Tories were now the "the party of the NHS" and said that only the Conservatives had pledged to spare the health service from the spending axe needed to trim Britain's record deficit.
AdvertisementAt the start of a year in which a general election must be held, the Tory leader repeated that the NHS was his chief priority. In an apparent attempt to rebut claims that the Tories are the party of the "privileged few", Mr Cameron announced plans to target NHS resources on the poorest areas.
"We are the only party committed to protecting NHS spending," he said. "I'll cut the deficit, not the NHS.
"And don't for one minute buy the Labour claim that they'll do the same. They won't — and their own figures show they won't. Unlike us, they have not committed to protecting areas of the health budget such as public health and capital investment."
In the Conservatives' draft manifesto they promise "to provide separate public health funding to local authorities, which will be accountable for — and paid according to — how successful they are in improving their local communities' health."
The document adds: "We will weight public health funding so that extra resources go to the poorest areas with the worst health outcomes through a new 'health premium'."
A spokesman said that the new policy could see areas such as Hartlepool and Knowsley, in which life expectancy is well below the national average, receive up the three times more than regions where people are comparatively healthier.
The new targeted funding stream would come from the uplift in the public health spending component of the NHS budget, added the spokesman.
Andrew Lansley, the Shadow Health Secretary, said: "Under Labour, health inequalities have widened. Public health problems, like obesity and alcohol abuse, are getting worse."
He added: "Our new 'health premium' will ensure that the areas that are suffering the worst health outcomes — more often than not the poorest communities — will benefit most from our public health reforms. This is progressive Conservatism in action."
But Labour insisted that only it can be trusted to protect the healthcare system, claiming the Tories would make fundamental changes that would hit the poor.
At the weekend prime minister Gordon Brown renewed his attack on Mr Cameron's spending plans, accusing him of proposing an age of "austerity" rather than "aspiration."
One of Mr Cameron's first acts as Tory leader was to ditch the voucher-style "patient's passport" in the party's previous manifesto. Since then, he has pledged to phase out many targets and free the NHS from ministerial meddling.
Their strategy stems from a mix of political calculation (the desire to reassure voters who have long thought the Tories hostile to the popular NHS) and Mr Cameron's own fervent support of the health service, for reasons both personal and intellectual, says The Economist.
It has worked. The Tories are now as trusted as Labour on health. But many think Mr Cameron, like Tony Blair, will become more radical in office, confronted by the sheer unwieldiness of the NHS, it has been asserted. Coming from the Economist, it could be just wishful thinking. Or perhaps they know too!