Rishi Sunak: Tories ‘are toast’ if NHS waiting list crisis isn’t fixed

Rishi Sunak chats to Conservative activists in Harpenden on Wednesday - Simon Walker
Rishi Sunak chats to Conservative activists in Harpenden on Wednesday - Simon Walker

Every family will soon know someone on a NHS waiting list, with electorally disastrous consequences for the Conservative party, Rishi Sunak warned on Wednesday.

The former chancellor told dozens of party members in Hertfordshire: “If we don’t fix this problem by the next election we are toast – it is as simple as that.”

Mr Sunak also declared that he knows “exactly what a woman is” and defended his proposal to slash VAT from fuel bills as he sought to rein in rival Liz Truss’s lead in the race to be Conservative leader.

The outsider in the leadership contest embarked on a whistlestop tour of three associations in Hertfordshire, south Cambridgeshire and west Suffolk as the battle to win the hearts and minds of members got under way in earnest.

The first stop was a private home in Harpenden just before lunchtime, where 80 Conservative activists held a question and answer session with him in the garden.

The topics discussed offered a foretaste of what Mr Sunak and Ms Truss can expect when the members’ hustings begin in earnest in Leeds on Thursday.

In a break from the sharp words on tax that have dominated the televised debates, the Tory members from Harpenden and Hitchen Conservatives were more concerned about the NHS, heating bills, new housing and the so-called “culture wars”.

Mr Sunak was forthright on the health service’s post-Covid waiting lists, acknowledging that staff were “under pressure to get the backlog down because it is unacceptably high level and people are waiting for treatment they desperately need”.

He said: “If we don’t fix this problem by the next election we are toast – it is as simple as that. We are at the point where every family will have someone on a waiting list the way things are going. If we go into an election like that, they are not going to send us back.”

Mr Sunak defended his decision when chancellor to press ahead with the 1.25 per cent increase in National Insurance contributions, insisting it was “not an easy thing” to do. He said: “I did it because it was the right thing to do, because the NHS got hammered in this pandemic.”

The former chancellor won the largest round of applause when he made it clear where he stood on trans rights. He said: “The fact that we have to have a conversation about what a woman is is quite frankly extraordinary. As a parent of two young girls and married to one, I know exactly what a woman is. We don’t need to have a debate about it.

“I am going to stand up for women’s rights, whether it is the language that people are now trying to erase from public life, access to changing rooms, sports – we need to stand up for women’s rights. It is not bigoted or somehow narrow-minded to say that.”

Mr Sunak said his proposals to cut VAT on energy bills, announced on Tuesday, was not inflationary because it was time-limited, and suggested more prefabricated modular homes as an affordable way to tackle the housing crisis.

Members seemed impressed by the former chancellor. Mike Bramwell said: “He came across really well and convincingly. I came undecided – I am leaving decided.”

Joe Irwin, 27, another undecided member, said: “I am swinging towards him now – he has an answer for most questions raised. He has got a lot of support.”

Dharmesh Patadia, 54, a business owner, added: “He has done wonders with the furlough scheme and Covid. His challenge now is to convince the members that his ideas work and then two years to deliver on those ideas.”

Speaking about Tuesday night's televised debate when Kate McCann, the TalkTV political editor, fainted in front of him and Ms Truss, Mr Sunak said: “I rushed over to her, held her hand and started talking to her to make sure she is alright. She is such a pro. She was saying: ‘I want to get up, I need to keep going.’”