9 January 2023

Does it matter whether or not Rishi Sunak uses an NHS GP?


Does Rishi Sunak use a private GP?

I suspect many will share my instinctive eye-rolling at the genre of question posed by the BBC’s Laura Kuennsberg yesterday. Yes, we all love Our NHS and all that, but why shouldn’t the Prime Minister of one of the world’s wealthiest countries avail himself of private healthcare if he needs it? Does anyone think it would be in the country’s best interests to not have the PM, whoever they may be, seen as promptly as possible? (Relatedly, why doesn’t Number 10 just have its own in-house medical personnel, the same way the US does with the White House Medical Unit?)

Still, you can decry the inanity of the question while also despairing at the way Sunak dealt with. At first he seemed to be answering a different question, replying that ‘my dad was a doctor’, before pivoting to ‘as a general policy I wouldn’t ever talk about me or my family’s healthcare situation’ and then saying his personal arrangements were not ‘relevant’.  

I have some sympathy with the thrust of his answer. It really would be better if we spent less time picking over politicians’ private lives and more discussing their policies. There’s not exactly a dearth of topics to be getting stuck into at the moment, after all. Nor is it news that Sunak and his family are well-off, though that fact obviously makes him an easier target for such personal questions.

However, if Sunak is going to use his parents’ association with the health service to burnish his own credentials as an NHS Man, he might have expected to be asked some follow-up questions on the same theme. Equally, it’s worth remembering that he’s only been Prime Minister for a couple of months, and he only came into Parliament seven years ago. As with the row over his wife’s non-dom status, perhaps a more experienced politician wouldn’t have allowed such a question to create an issue for them. 

It’s also instructive to compare Sunak’s slightly shifty response to how Margaret Thatcher responded to the same question back in 1987.

‘I, along with something like five million other people, insure to enable me to go into hospital on the day I want; at the time I want, and with a doctor I want. For me, that is absolutely vital. I do that along with five million others. Like most people, I pay my dues to the National Health Service; I do not add to the queue… I exercise my right as a free citizen to spend my own money in my own way, so that I can go in on the day, at the time, with the doctor I choose and get out fast.’

The arguments the Iron Lady deployed are self-evidently Sound (in the Tory-ish sense of defending freedom, choice and all that good stuff). Her point about the well-off not adding to the queue also rings particularly true in an era where demand for the NHS continues to hugely outstrip the supply of care. Indeed, it’s really not that unusual to use private healthcare in the UK; a poll by YouGov last year suggested about 7% of us (3.7m people) have used a private GP in the last couple of years, a number that has sharply increased since the pandemic.

There’s a deeper point here about political culture: can you imagine any frontline politician, or indeed most Tory MPs defending not just their private decisions but their whole political creed in such forthright terms. Sure, society has moved on, there’s plenty from the 1980s we’ve happily discarded, but I can’t be alone in finding today’s politics too apologetic, too triangulating, too aimed at appeasing the median voter rather than convincing them.

Few are expecting Sunak to suddenly morph into Maggie 2.0, but he could at least have answered the question in a straightforward manner. By refusing to do so he only risks perpetuating the issue and turning it into a source of attacks for his opponents. There’s a perfectly legitimate set of arguments for the PM to use a private doctor if he needs one, he should have the courage of his convictions and make them.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.