By Ian Dunt
Labour has rathcheted up the pressure on Tory MEP Daniel Hannan by describing his comments on the NHS as "unpatriotic".
David Cameron launched a desperate rearguard defence today against the damage done to the Tory brand by Mr Hannan's comments on US television.
The prominent European politician, who became an internet sensation through his attack on Gordon Brown in the EU, told American audiences he "wouldn't wish" the NHS "on anyone".
Labour seemed determined to inflict maximum political damage over the issue.
This afternoon health secretary Andy Burnham said: "What has happened within the last 48 hours is what Cameron has feared most because it lays bare the Tories' deep ambivalence towards the NHS.
"We will stand up for the NHS and we will make sure that it is properly represented in the international media. And that is why what Mr Hannan has done disappoints me so much.
"I would almost feel... it is unpatriotic because he is talking in foreign media and not representing, in my view, the views of the vast majority of British people and actually, I think giving an unfair impression of the National Health Service himself, a British representative on foreign media."
Mr Cameron was forced to play catch up after Mr Brown and health secretary Andy Burnham seized on the pro-NHS trend sweeping Twitter over the last couple of days.
The prime minister put out a tweet saying: "NHS often makes the difference between pain and comfort, despair and hope, life and death. Thanks for always being there."
Mr Burnham wrote: "Over the moon about strong support for the NHS - an institution I will defend to my dying day, second only to Everton FC."
The shadow health secretary tried to distance the Tory leadership from the views of Mr Hannan, who is firmly to the right of the party, saying he was giving a "distorted" view of the health service.
He told the Today programme: "We don't extend discipline in parties to political censorship of people's views, we encourage free speech in the Conservative Party.
"It's just that we don't, David Cameron and I, don't happen to agree with Dan Hannan.
"What he said was both a negative view of the NHS, but more to the point was a distorted view of the NHS.
"I think it's very important for people in America to understand the NHS has very powerful examples that they can look to."
In an email to supporters last night the Tory leader wrote: "Just look at all the support which the NHS has received on Twitter over the last couple of days. It is a reminder - if one were needed - of how proud we in Britain are of the NHS.
But the email failed to stem the anger, which was quickly seized on by Lord Mandelson, who is standing in for the prime minister this week.
"I think people will find it shocking that a Conservative parliamentarian can go to the United States to slag off the NHS," he said.
"What we see is the two faces of the Conservative party - the one David Cameron wants everyone to see and believe, and the other one presented by the Conservative parliamentarian."
John Prescott took the airwaves today to try and associate the statements with the Tory leadership today.
"This isn't a maverick," he told the BBC.
"This is a man who is putting across a misrepresentation because he hates the health service, and he is feeding the insurance companies. In 1947, when Labour brought in a health service based on need and not ability to pay, it was opposed by the doctors, it was opposed by the insurance companies, it was opposed by the Tory party."
The success of the Labour attacks forced Mr Cameron to make further statements on the matter.
"I don't agree with Daniel Hannan," he said today.
"The Conservative party stands full square behind the NHS. We back it, we are going to expand it, we have ring-fenced it and said that it will get more money under a Conservative government, and it is our number one mission to improve it.
"As I said at the party conference, you can sum up our priorities in three letters: N. H. S. That is as true today as it was then."
He added: "He does have some quite eccentric views about some things, and political parties always include some people who don't toe the party line on one issue or another issue. But no one should be in any doubt: the NHS is our number one priority ... It is one of our greatest national institutions and we want to expand it and improve it."
Mr Hannan's interjection came during a furious row in the US over President Obama's healthcare reforms, which would see an expansion of the insurance system - possibly including state insurance - so that the 40 million Americans without insurance could be covered by something approaching a universal system.
The plans have prompted huge anger among right wingers, who view it as a drastic expansion of government.
This afternoon, health service union Unison published a fact file documenting what it said are the rightwing US "lies" about the NHS.
Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, said: "I, like so many other people in the UK, owe my life to the NHS. We are outraged by the gross lies and distortions, being spread in the US about our NHS."