Rod Stewart is a pop star who takes more enjoyment nowadays from playing with his vast model railway set-up than he does from taking to the stage in front of thousands of screaming fans.
He’s made his money and at 78 years of age, yes, his hips don’t lie. He hasn’t quite got the swagger of decades gone. He’s sufficiently wealthy that he’s mostly retired, living just outside London’s M25 motorway, and has paid his dues and taxes.
So, you can image the surprise then when viewers tuned into a call-in segment on a recent Thursday on Sky News heard the gravelly-voiced Scot call in to condemn the Conservative government and bemoan the sad state of affairs in the UK’s National Health Service.
Abysmal condition of the NHS
He said he was appalled by the abysmal condition of the NHS, one where ambulances don’t come, accident and emergency departments have long waiting queues for treatment, and where beds are as rare as hen’s teeth because those who are in the wards should be care homes for the elderly and infirm — but they’re rarer than hen’s teeth too.
The system is broken, ambulance workers, nurses, support services — even doctors — are in some sort of industrial action. And they have the overwhelming support of the British public.
Stewart offered to use his funds to pay for scans for people — fancy a six-month wait to see whether or not you might have cancer — and viewers were urged to call the television station if they needed a scan.
On the same day that Stewart made his phone call, a coroner’s inquest in Surrey — a county that is prime Conservative territory, also on that M25 motorway that circumnavigates the commuter belt neighbouring London — heard the terrible sad story of a woman in her 30s who died alone at home. Her mummified body was discovered three years after her death. She had mental health issues, was estranged from her family, and was supposedly under the care of the NHS. No one missed her.
And on the same day too, Rishi Sunak assembled his cabinet in Chequers — the office country residence of UK prime ministers and not far from the capital either.
The daylong gathering was an attempt to reset the agenda of government. Reset? Heck, Sunak has only been in office since September, but such is that state of chaos in the UK right now, that four-month period is pretty much three times longer than the reign of Sunak’s predecessor, Liz Truss.
The retreat, according to press reports, was also an attempt to focus the cabinet on five key areas that Sunak and Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the PM’s right-hand man, that the Conservatives will focus on for the remainder of their time in office.
Controlling inflation is job one. Get that in order and a lot of the root causes of the industrial action and strikes that are underscoring the news agenda will hopefully face away. Hopefully. But the irony hasn’t been lost on the British public that Hunt, who served as the Minister for Health under Theresa May and Boris Johnson, was also the man who ran the NHS — or ran it into the ground if you would believe the leaders of those unions now fighting for better pay and conditions for nurses and others.
There’s no money to fix the system
And job two is fixing the waiting times in the NHS. Sure, the government can tinker with small administrative changes — but the only real way to fix that is throw billions of more money at the system. And Hunt, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, knows more than anyone that there simply isn’t any money around now — and certainly not when inflation means the borrowing costs for the government went up £30 billion in December alone. And those borrowing costs were partially triggered by the reckless economic policy announced by Truss, during her 44 days in office.
That country retreat for the cabinet was also used as an opportunity from senior party election gurus to brief the Conservative elite of their slim but achievable path to election victory next year.
Get inflation under control, fix the NHS and stop small boats with refugees coming across the English Channel and there’s a chance of hauling back the 20-point deficit that the Conservatives are in compared to Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour party.
As long as the party can avoid any more scandals, too.
How ironic that the briefing came on a day when Nadhim Zahawi, the Conservative party chairman and a member of cabinet too, faced intense calls to step aside. It’s just been revealed that he paid His Majesty’s Revenue Collectors some £5 million in penalties and taxes over his business dealings. There are questions too over his property dealings, and Zahawi didn’t do himself any favours by threatening legal action against journalists who raised the issue over the last 24 months. Oh, and he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, responsible for the nation’s money and taxes when he paid the fine.
But the bigger question is what Sunak knows and when did he know it. After all, he was Chancellor of the Exchequer while the initial press questions were asked about Zahawi’s affairs — and senior political figures are generally kept in the loop when such questions are put to officials, lest there be political fallout from the stories when they do see the light of day in print or broadcast.
But back to Stewart, who told Sky News that he had been a long-time supporter of the Conservatives.
“Change the bloody government,” he said when asked how to fix the NHS.
This current one, it seems, is on life support, and the prognosis isn’t good …