So the Tories have, as The Spectator predicted last month, announced an extra £384 million a week for the National Health Service – something Theresa May was perfectly happy to sell this morning as being the ‘Brexit dividend’ that Boris Johnson had been pressuring her for. This is an odd choice, given it is impossible to know what the real ‘Brexit dividend’ will be when we haven’t yet left the European Union.
Indeed, May couldn’t say very much at all about how this extra NHS money will be funded: that’s presumably because no Prime Minister wants to tell voters how much more tax they’ll be paying, regardless of whether that tax is funding something as salient as the health service. Much easier to talk about the ‘Brexit Dividend’, which is in fact a recently described subspecies of the Magic Money Tree. When Labour try to harvest all they can from their orchard of tax avoidance and so on, they rightly receive criticism for relying on nebulous pots of money which will expand and contract according to what the party needs to fund. The Tories are doing exactly the same thing here.
The Prime Minister had all her rehearsed lines on the health service, the EU Withdrawal Bill and Christopher Chope’s ‘upskirting’ row ready when she appeared on Andrew Marr’s programme, and it was rather difficult to get her to answer questions once again.
— BBC News (UK) (@BBCNews) June 17, 2018
The health service boost is the result of intense negotiations between Jeremy Hunt and the Treasury, and does represent a significant increase in NHS spending – though not as much as some economists have said is necessary. But one thing missing from the announcement so far is one of the key sources of pressure for the NHS: social care. May told Marr that the money she is announcing in her speech tomorrow will be for the NHS only, and that there will be a green paper published on social care shortly, to work out what to do given that her own plan – dubbed the “dementia tax” – imploded.
My understanding of the negotiations is that the NHS money had to be cleared in order for ministers to even start considering what they will do about social care. It’s still unclear whether any of those considerations will become solid enough to be included as suggestions in a green paper, or whether that document will just be yet another consultation for the sector to provide the same responses as it has been doing for years about the pressures it is facing. May certainly wasn’t giving anything away on Marr today.
When asked about the various parliamentary battle over the EU Withdrawal Bill, she deployed her classic device of wasting a little bit of extra time explaining what the EU Withdrawal Bill actually was, before answering Marr’s questions about the threatened rebellion on the unamendable amendment on a meaningful vote.
She tried the same tactic with Christopher Chope, dodging Marr’s question about why on earth this Tory MP had been given a knighthood just six months ago. Her scripted answer, which didn’t deal with the knighthood at all, was very poor, and suggested a Prime Minister who wasn’t fully in control of her party – or indeed her own choices, given Chope’s behaviour on the ‘upskirting’ bill is part of a long-established pattern, and given the knighthood was given under her own watch.
And this matters. The so-far-unfunded NHS announcement will cost some £20 billion. The pledge is timed not for the Spending Review but the 70th birthday of the NHS – so the whole gesture (and many will argue that it’s not much more than that) will be intended to send a statement about the values of the Tory Party. This is what it wants to discuss.
But I suspect that, this week, the Conservative party will find itself answering as many questions about whether it believes that upskirting is somehow OK.