18 OCTOBER 1997, Page 32


Kenneth Clarke delivers a hospital pass and Gordon Brown gets rucked


THE HOSPITAL pass is a term of art in rugby football. Its unlucky recipient gets the ball just as eight enormous forwards in sharp-studded boots bear down on him and trample him into the ground. Nowadays this is called rucking. What the recipient calls it as he is dug up and carried off I would not care to say. Now observe the hospital pass that Kenneth Clarke contrived to slip to Gordon Brown. This year, said the incoming Chancellor, there would be none of the usual negotiations about public spending. Instead, he would take on his predecessor's figures, which were suitably tough. They were also — as some of us, watching in the stands, had noticed —suitably improbable. Government spending on health had been rising in real terms (that is, allowing for inflation) by 4 per cent a year, year in, year out. Mr Clarke's figures blithely assumed that it would stop. Now here we are again with the annual scare story of a winter crisis in the hospitals: standard Whitehall tech- nique, intended to shame the Treasury into paying up. A pack of doctors and nurses is bearing down on Mr Brown. Hurriedly he reaches for the money that was due to other spending departments — something from trade, something from defence, for who cares about defence or trade? Well, their ministers do, and ministers who have felt the impress of Mr Brown's sharp studs may not be too sorry to see him at the bottom of the scrum. There may even be Treasury man- darins who can restrain their grief. Under the new regime some have been abused and others bypassed. Of course, they were there when the hospital pass was delivered.