Tom Richmond: Tories must end unease on welfare and NHS cuts

LIKE it or not, the NHS and welfare system remain the Tory party’s Achilles heel.

While David Cameron remains clear of Ed Miliband on the issues of economic competence and leadership, this alone will not be sufficient to see the Conservatives returned to office.

He simply cannot make accusations of a ‘black hole’ in Labour’s financial plans, however valid, without providing further reassurances about the future of health and welfare policy – two spheres of spending which will influence voters.

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Take the Department of Work and Pensions where savings of £21bn have already been achieved over the next five years under the Iain Duncan Smith. A further £12bn needs to be trimmed – but the Tories are reluctant to be specific, and the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon exposed this in Thurdsay’s leaders’ debate.

However, they do need, for reasons of political expediency, to offer clarity; their reluctance to write the next spending review now simply allows Labour, aided and abetted by charities like Barnardo’s and others, to make the running with a series of stories predicting dire consequences for the disabled and carers.

These are probably unfounded – Mr Duncan Smith is a man of compassion who set up the Centre for Social Justice – but I’m not the person who needs convincing. The Tories need to win over the sceptics in the M62 marginal constituencies and they’re not doing a very good job.

It’s the same with the NHS and Jeremy Hunt’s promise to find an extra £30bn in order to implement the reforms recommended by Simon Stevens. He has signalled that this will be possible through £22bn of efficiency savings and £8bn of additional spending.

Mr Hunt says decisions will be finalised in the summer. I have news for him. By then, it could be too late. The plans must be pretty detailed if he believes £22bn can be saved in management costs. And, if he is convinced that this is achievable without compromising patient care, he should set this out now so the electorate can be acquainted with the full facts rather than the vitriol of Labour’s scaremongerer-in-chief Andy Burnham.

TWO words explain in a nutshell why it will be virtually impossible for the Conservatives to secure an overall majority for the first time since 1992: Nick Clegg.

His Sheffield Hallam constituency was held by the Tories until 1997 when it fell to the Lib Dems, first Richard Allan and then Clegg from 2005 onwards. The fact that the Conservatives are likely to finish third here on May 7 shows just how much ground that they have still to make up in those Northern cities which returned Tory MPs in the past.

And then there is the fact that the coalition’s plan to reduce the number of MPs by 50, a move which would have nullified the electoral advantage enjoyed by Labour in urban areas which have smaller constituencies in comparison to the shires, was vetoed by Mr Clegg’s party when the Lib Dems did not get their own way over House of Lords reform.

If the Parliamentary boundaries were changed, the Tories would be in a much stronger position. Now they have no hope of persuading Labour, the Lib Dems and SNP to consent to a fairer system.

AS relations within the Lib Dems become more fractious, keep an eye on the fortunes of Nick Clegg in the aforementioned Sheffield Hallam and Treasury chief secretary Danny Alexander whose Scottish Highlands seat is coming under pressure from the SNP.

Their vulnerability could leave Business Secretary Vince Cable and the left-leaning party president Tim Farron in the ascendancy after May 7. If this happens, it will not bode well for the Tories assuming David Cameron falls short of winning an overall majority.

SOME interesting snippets from those senior politicians campaigning in Yorkshire.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan attributes this region’s poor exam results to weak leadership in schools. Let’s see how she will work with the teaching profession to reverse this; after all the ATL union revealed this week thay almost two-fifths of teachers are not in the classroom a year after finishing their training,

Just as significant was the admission by Labour’s Hilary Benn, the Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary, who said an Ed Miliband-led government would retain the two per cent cap on council tax bills. The reaction of Labour-controlled town halls will be interesting – they have been campaigning for this restriction to be lifted to ease the cuts which are now being implemented.

JUST the 39 photos of Stuart Andrew in the Tory’s latest election leaflet as he battles to save his Pudsey seat. There is one photo of the Prime Minister – but no name-check for David Cameron. However there was a personal endorsement by Boris Johnson in which the Mayor of London implores people “to vote locally”. Like Labour’s Jamie Hanley, whose leaflets gloss over his leader Ed Miliband, what do these omissions say about the leadership qualities of the two men vying to be PM?

AFTER a Sunday night mauling on 5 Live, Shipley’s Philip Davies was on a winner the following morning – his first day of campaigning involved a meeting with the formidable Grand National-winning team of Harvey and Sue Smith.

“We now have a long-term plan for everything,” said Davies when asked if the Tories did not have a policy for horse racing. Now for the task for selecting the winner of the National... it will be easier than predicting the election outcome.

I ENJOYED a pleasant surprise when listening to Any Questions? on the radio. Despite the panellists including a combative George Galloway, the exchanges were far more constructive and amiable under Jonathan Dimbleby than television’s Question Time.

Perhaps it is because Dimbleby is not seeking to become the story – unlike some of today’s political presenters who revel in their celebrity status. Sir Robin Day’s interrogations in the past, alongside those of Brian Walden and Sheffield-born Sir Alastair Burnet, provided a far greater test than the current TV debates.

I’M a great fan of North Yorkshire author Peter Robinson’s fictional detective Inspector Alan Banks – there’s an air of authenticity to the books and the narrative set in the Dales. Yet am I the only person who thinks the TV adaptation DCI Banks, with the talented Stephen Tompkinson is the lead role, is flawed because the storylines revolve around dramatic plots based in the centre of Leeds rather than the country setting which helps to make the books so popular and readable?