On the day of the last general election, Margaret Beckett, then Environment Minister, received a phone call from Gordon Brown, who wanted to discuss with her the post-election cabinet he and Mr Blair were putting together, and they spent about 10 minutes discussing their cabinet colleagues’ strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, her caller was, in fact, Rory Bremner and he had a tape recorder running.
It’s not been broadcast as yet, since Downing Street apparently kicked up a fuss — Bremner tried the same trick on Peter Hain, who eventually rumbled him — and Ofcom have rules about broadcasting wind-up phone calls without the victim’s consent. Doubtless it’ll soon appear on the interwebs if it hasn’t already.
Mrs Beckett certainly got it right in one respect, though.
The conversation turned, at one point, to Patricia Hewitt, who was interviewed by Liam Halligan for the Sunday Telegraph about the NHS in general and, in particular, about the findings of a forthcoming (Monday night) Dispatches programme on Channel 4 that almost half the NHS hospitals in England are now delaying operations to meet their end-of-year financial targets and that, in some areas, radiotherapy for cancer is being delayed for the same reason.
Mrs Hewitt, it will be remembered, promised last year to ‘take personal responsibility’ if the NHS’s books failed to balance by this April and, since the latest accounts show the NHS had a deficit of £1.3 billion during the third quarter, up from £1.2 billion the previous quarter, drastic action is clearly necessary to save the Minister’s bacon. Mr Halligan puts this to her:
With the tensions between us increasing, I put it to the Secretary of State that she is desperately trying to rein in the deficit, in an unrealistic time-frame, to save her own political skin. For the first time, she loses her cool, and the interview comes alive. “That is an absolute insult to thousands of NHS staff across the country,” she retorts, her eyes wide with anger. “That is an insult to NHS staff across the country who have worked their socks off this year to make difficult decisions.”I point out that I am addressing her and not anyone from the NHS, and that many friends working in the health service have asked me to put exactly this point to her. “You are simply reflecting a cynical media view. Let’s deal with the reality. It is a frustrating situation but the NHS has to live within its means – so, in some places, for a temporary period, minimum waits will be necessary.”
Back in May last year, Gordon Brown/Rory Bremner and Mrs Beckett were chatting about Mrs Hewitt, then at the DTI:
Margaret Beckett: […] No disrespect to Patricia [Hewitt], but DTI is always a bit of a handful.RB: I think she’s a bit out of her depth there, actually.
MB: Yeah. That’s what a lot of other people say to me.
And, it would seem, in her new job too.
Below: Beau Bo D’Or on the Minister for Lying About the NHS, last year: