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News, gossip and insight from PoliticsHome Editor Paul Waugh

Second rate, second best, second chance

Sometimes David Cameron is a consummate media and public performer, at ease with the conversational as much as the ceremonial.

But as John Humphrys harried him on the Today programme this morning, the PM made a couple of slips which may cause him problems.

Mr Cameron was busy making his central case that patients should not have to accept "second best" in some areas of healthcare. He pointed out that although we now spend near the European average on health (remember that was Blair's famous pledge), the UK's cancer and heart disease rates were still behind other countries.

But in his haste to get out the "don't settle for second best" message, the PM blurted out that people shouldn't have to settle for "second rate" healthcare.

Yes, that's right: "second rate".

He immediately corrected himself, acutely aware of the toxic nature of any outspoken criticism of doctors, nurses and others in the NHS. I suspect that correction won't stop Labour from hammering him hard, accusing him of insulting millions of hard-working public servants.

As with all such slips, you can't help wondering just what a kicking the PM would give to a Cabinet minister who made the same mistake (or a business adviser who talked about people never having it so good, for example).

Maybe, as with his married families tax blunder last year, he will do a mea culpa later to clarify that he intended no slight on NHS staff*.

In his Today interview, the PM was also quizzed about the thorny topic of Andy Coulson's future. He made a robust defence of his comms chief, but again seemed to offer a few hostages to fortune.

"He's being punished twice for the same offence," said the PM. "In life, it's right to give someone a second chance."

Heck, he sounded almost Ken Clarke pleading for soft policies on hardened criminals. Unintentionally, of course.

The PM also said that Coulson and his team did their jobs in a "proper, transparent and decent way.. that hasn't always been the case in the past". That clear dig at Alastair Campbell won't have gone unnoticed at Westminster.

Which brings me to a final slip. The Campbell diaries latest extracts have a nice line about how Margaret Thatcher complained to Blair about Gordon Brown's treatment of Bank of England Governor Eddie George.

Campbell writes: "Thatcher had said to TB she thought GB was arrogant and insensitive, that you could not treat a Bank Governor with anything but respect and that was not coming over."

Although he has nothing but respect for Mervyn King, the PM did drop his guard on Marr last week to hint that the Bank should be doing more about inflation. 

Although he didn't comment directly on interest rates, Mr Cameron's words were enough to provoke an FT splash. Today, the Ernst & Young Item Club warned that that was a silly thing for a PM to do and that he should do more to protect the bank's independence.

As I say, if that had been another minister speculating about inflation, they may well have got a rocket from Number 10 and the Treasury.

Then again, maybe the PM would say that everyone needs a second chance - even himself.

 

*FOOTNOTE: The PM can't argue that it's just systems, not NHS staff that are in the Government's crosshairs. Andrew Lansley finally lost patience today with the BMA and others who attacked his reform plans, criticising their "alarmist" language.

Crucially, he said that "If there are those in the national hierarchies who find it all rather difficult letting go of their power and influence, well I'm sorry but that's the way it's going to be."

That will cheer many Tories who want the case for reform to be made much more strongly. Many of them do indeed think that some NHS services are second rate. You just can't say so publicly.

 

 

UPDATE: Well, the PM certainly has a nice taste in blogs. It seems it was here that he first saw that his 'second rate' words were possibly turning into a story.

When challenged by ITN's Lucy Manning today, he made clear that he had not intended to show any disrespect to NHS staff. (In fact, in his speech he went out of his way to say previous Tory governments, including Margaret Thatcher's, had shown "insufficient respect to public services or public service").

He told Lucy:

“I think if you listen to the interview I immediately said we shouldn’t settle for second best and that’s exactly what I meant to say and I often speak quickly.

“I don’t just have a prearranged order and you can get a little word out of place so I immediately, if you listen to the script, said we shouldn’t settle for second best. That was the point I was making."

But it was significant that Mr Cameron was unafraid to point out that there were indeed parts of the NHS which were not the best.

"I have seen people go the extra mile for me and my family under extraordinary circumstances. In so many ways we have real excellence in our health service but I think when you look across the NHS, no-one would argue for instance that in Stafford got an absolutely first class service from the hospital because they didn’t. So we have to be frank about failings and dealing with failings.

 “We shouldn’t settle for second best is what I meant and largely what I said if you skip over a quick word in the middle.”

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