Warning: This post was published more than 11 years ago.
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PATRICIA HEWITT is suffering from a medical condition in which she says the opposite of what is true. Those close to the Health Secretary accept this and have learnt to cope. So when Pat says “the sun is shining” they know that, in fact, it is bucketing down and to take an umbrella.
Yesterday she tackled Sir Nigel Crisp’s abrupt departure from the NHS by heaping praise on him. Hearing this, we all assumed he had been pushed.
She spoke of him in the kind of hushed tones that many people would reserve for an extraordinary pet: a parakeet that could knit jumpers, for instance, or dog that could speak Japanese. “Under his leadership,” she said, her voice lapping upon us like the gentlest of waves, “we have seen extraordinary improvements — record improvements — in the performance of the NHS.”
This made us realise things were worse than we had thought. MPs exchanged looks of incredulity. The Tories were rustling like rats in a pantry. “Retired! Retired!” they muttered, eyes wide with wonder. Ms Hewitt pretended this wasn’t happening.
She has now perfected the art of acting like all three wise monkeys at once: she sees no evil, hears no evil and speaks no evil. If she isn’t careful, she might get a reputation for being vacuous.
Andrew Lansley, the Shadow Health Secretary, was spluttering. Mr Lansley looks a bit like the mild-mannered Barney Rubble from The Flintstones. Yesterday, though, he managed something approaching anger as he tried to extract the truth out of Ms Hewitt about the ever rising NHS yearly deficit.
This proved as difficult as getting a tooth taken out by an NHS dentist. Ms Hewitt was wearing a giant fake flower on her lapel. All new Labour women have these (I assume a mail-order catalogue is involved) and the Health Secretary owns several. Yesterday she had on a pink peony that was as large as a bread plate. As she came under attack from all sides of the House about the deficits, the peony began to tremble with outrage.
We knew the finances were out of control because she kept insisting she was getting a grip on them. Mr Lansley charted the deficit in remorseless detail. First she said it would be £200 million.
But, after six months, she admitted it was closer to £620 million. So what was the real figure? Was it not now approaching £800 million?
She sat, lips pursed, peony poised for battle. Mr Rubble wasn’t letting her off the hook. Was she going to take responsibility for this? Or, he asked slyly, did Sir Nigel have to take the blame? “Perhaps he doesn’t yet appreciate to what extent he is going to pay a last service to the National Health Service, or at least to the Secretary of State, in acting as fall guy for the lack of financial control in the NHS.”
Her voice was deadly calm now. She praised Sir Nigel for being “outstanding”. (It sounds so damning when she says it.) Then, in what doctors are now saying is as close to a miracle cure as has been seen for her condition, Ms Hewitt admitted things were not utterly fantastic. The House erupted in hoots of laughter. Things are, obviously, very serious indeed.
I’ve always known there was something wrong…