Is there really a cross-party consensus on tax rises for the health and social care system? A group of MPs from across Parliament has written to Theresa May calling for a year-long parliamentary commission on funding for all branches of the health system. Meanwhile Jeremy Hunt is calling for a ten-year settlement for the NHS, attacking a ‘feast or famine’ approach to funding it. ‘There’s no doubt that NHS staff right now are working unbelievably hard and they need to have some hope for the future, but their real concern is this rather crazy way that we have been funding the NHS over the last 20 years,’ he told ITV’s Peston on Sunday.
As I’ve written before, Hunt has been making the case in Cabinet over the past few months that Conservative voters are less bothered about low taxes than they are about a safe and secure old age, one in which they can be confident they will have good quality healthcare, whether they find themselves suffering from dementia or cancer. He is clearly winning the argument enough to be able to make his interventions on television now, rather than in confidential meetings. Surely his aims and those of the backbenchers, including a number of Tories such as Sarah Wollaston, Oliver Letwin and Nick Boles, can collide?
I’m not sure this is true, though. The cross-party calls don’t seem to interest senior Tories as much as you might think. There is a sense among those who have to think about parliamentary arithmetic that Parliament would support higher funding anyway. Plus there isn’t frontbench consensus on reform. A notable absence in the list of names supporting this letter is that of any Labour frontbenchers. Neither Jon Ashworth, the party’s Shadow Health Secretary nor Barbara Keeley, the Shadow Social Care Secretary, are present on the list, and I understand this is because there is a reluctance in the Shadow Cabinet to be seen to be helping the Tories on any issue at all. That doesn’t mean Labour would oppose a vote on more money for the health service; it’s just that the party doesn’t want to be involved in the donkey work of a commission which will then feed in to the government.
What we have are two groups who believe they are the best route for reform: the backbenchers and select committee chairs who signed the letter who feel they can secure the parliamentary majority for it, and the senior Tories in government who think they already have the numbers anyway. Given health care funding and reform are actually quite thorny issues once you get beyond the general agreement that we need more money, it could actually be that neither group is right.