David Cameron does big solemn occasions well. He’s skilled at taking a statement above the usual tit-for-tat partisan exchanges in the Commons. Everyone knows that, as does the Prime Minister, which is why he made the statement on the Francis Report rather than the Health Secretary. The Tories know that turning the response to this inquiry into a political football would not serve the party well, given Labour’s 16-point lead in the polls on the NHS.
The tone was sombre, with the Prime Minister apologising for the suffering caused by failures at the Mid Staffordshire NHS trust. He also emphasised that today was not about hunting down scapegoats, even though some are calling for the resignation of Sir David Nicholson as NHS chief executive. But though he sought to make the tone of today’s statement apolitical, with Andy Burnham, who was Health Secretary at the time, nodding his head in a agreement at a number of points in the statement, the Prime Minister did point to one part of the government’s response which could well spark political tensions with the opposition.
It is difficult to disagree with his emphasis on a culture of care in the health service, but the Prime Minister did also tell MPs that he was minded to support performance-related pay for staff. He said:
‘Nurses should be hired and promoted on the basis of having compassion as a vocation, not just academic qualifications. We need a style of leadership from senior nurses which means poor practice is not tolerated and is driven off the wards. Another issue is whether pay should be linked to quality of care rather than just time served at a hospital. I favour this approach.’
Given the reaction of the teaching unions to performance-related pay, doing the same for nurses could well be difficult for Labour to support, and when such proposals come to Parliament, there is unlikely to be such a solemn tone in the Chamber as there was today.