David Cameron was facing a battle to restore party unity behind his health policy last night after it emerged that several of his key shadow cabinet members put their names to a manifesto criticising the NHS and calling for it in effect to be dismantled.
The Observer can reveal that leading Tory MPs – who include Cameron's close ally Michael Gove – are listed alongside controversial MEP Daniel Hannan as co-authors of a book, Direct Democracy, which says the NHS "fails to meet public expectations" and is "no longer relevant in the 21st century".
Others listed as co-authors in the book, published shortly after the 2005 general election, include shadow cabinet members Greg Clark and Jeremy Hunt and frontbencher Robert Goodwill. Clark and Hunt were unavailable for comment last night.
Gove is also one of a group of more than 20 Tory MPs and MEPs who are cited as supporters of Hannan's views in another book, The Plan: Twelve Months to Renew Britain, published in December last year, in which Hannan and Tory MP Douglas Carswell describe the NHS as "the national sickness service".
Both books call for the NHS to be replaced by a new system of health provision in which people would pay money into personal health accounts, which they could then use to shop around for care from public and private providers. Those who could not afford to save enough would be funded by the state.
The revelations follow a furious row over Hannan's recent appearance on US television, in which he told Fox News that the NHS was a "60-year-old mistake" and urged Americans not to adopt a similar system if they wanted efficient, effective healthcare.
Hannan was rapidly slapped down and branded an "eccentric" by Cameron, who has pledged to preserve the health service, and to increase spending on it, without subjecting it to radical structural reform.
Last night Tories listed as co-authors and supporters of Hannan's writings moved to distance themselves from his views. Gove said: "Dan and Douglas produce many interesting ideas. There are many … that emphatically I do not share. I certainly do not share Dan's view of the NHS."
The shadow transport minister, Robert Goodwill, said he believed in some of the suggestions on the NHS, but could not comment further because health is not his brief. Goodwill distanced himself from Hannan's views expressed on Fox News. "There are many things that should be done to the NHS, but scrapping it is not one of them," he said.
But Labour sought to capitalise, saying that Tories were split on a core policy. Andy Burnham, the health secretary, said: "This shows that, while Cameron says he is pro-NHS, he is at odds with a large section of his own party."
Barack Obama's stepmother joined in the debate last night, saying that she owed her life to the NHS. Kezia Obama, 66, who now lives in Bracknell, Berkshire, suffered chronic kidney failure on a visit to the UK seven years ago.
She told the News of the World: "I was very down at the time but luckily I was here in Britain, in what was then a foreign country to me, where the doctors, nurses and surgeons cared for me like I was their own child. It's very simple. I owe my life to the NHS. If it wasn't for the NHS I wouldn't have been alive to see our family's greatest moment – when Barack became president and was sworn into the White House."
Gordon Brown last night broke off from his holiday to issue a statement declaring he would place the future of the NHS at the heart of the next election. "I will not stand by and see the NHS and its brilliant staff denigrated and undermined, whether that's by the right wing in the United States or by their friends in the British Conservative party," he said.
In an article in today's Observer, the home secretary, Alan Johnson, accuses the Tories of widening their claims about "Broken Britain" to assaults on the health service. "This nauseous nonsense now extends to senior Conservatives helping rightwing Republican opponents of Obama's US health reforms by denigrating our NHS, calling it a 60-year mistake," he writes.
Awwww, here it goes! Does anyone see an international incident on the cards? If any Americans wanted evidence that being opposed to the NHS in the UK is political suicide, this rapid back-tracking should suffice. Also, where's Canada in all this? I've heard plenty of anti-NHS stuff, but Canada also has universal healthcare and I'm yet to hear GOP/Fox et al start in on Canada.
Strictly from a British perspective, here's hoping that these kind of incidents lead people to realise what a Tory government probably entails and shrink the majority they're likely to obtain next year. That said, I'm not too sure a Conservative government would need a huge majority. Unlike Labour, they seem to have a much smaller range of ideologies and so aren't as susceptible to backbench rebellions. Damn it.