By James Reid
Ask any Tory about the NHS and they will all tell you the same thing. They love it, they’ll probably mention its recent funding boost despite years of strangulation, and they’ll also tell you that it’s not on the table for any future post-Brexit trade deals.
That is exactly what Trade Minister Greg Hands MP told the Commons after his party had trooped through the lobbies to vote down an amendment to do just that. To onlookers, this looks, understandably, a rather odd move. If you’re so sure that the NHS is off the table, then why vote down an amendment that would demonstrate that commitment in no uncertain terms?
The reality is that the Tories simply cannot be trusted with the NHS. For the past ten years, the NHS has limped along under the increasing strain of austerity. Despite recent increases in funding, the reality is that the NHS is in a far worse shape now than it was when the coalition eventually evicted Gordon Brown from 10 Downing Street all those years ago.
Thus, the words of MPs like Hands, who branded the idea that the NHS was on the table as “offensive and absurd”, ultimately ring hollow. Yet the reality is that it seems to matter little to the public. It is worth remembering that the Tories have been the largest party in the last four elections, despite their record on the NHS.
For all the clapping on doorsteps and rainbows in windows, the electorate have demonstrated time and again that increasingly prominent issues such as the salaries of nurses and falling NHS staffing numbers were simply not priorities in previous elections. We are not, however, going to wake up in some USA-style healthcare nightmare in which the Tories have suddenly traded the NHS for chlorinated chicken.
Despite claims from Jeremy Corbyn, who proudly held aloft documents he claimed proved the fact back in December 2019, the Tories are not stupid enough to pursue such a policy. To do so would be the most sure-fire form of electoral self-sabotage currently available. The pandemic has only served to further strengthen the quasi-religious status of the NHS. No serious party will include such a policy in their next manifestos, and to pretend otherwise would be simply misleading. But this does not mean that we are necessarily out of the woods just yet. Indeed, there is surely a reason why they voted down the amendment, given the inevitable negative headlines it duly created.
There is a clear logic to the Tories’ position. If, as claimed, there is no way they would countenance involving the NHS in a trade deal, especially with the USA, then ensuring you are not unnecessarily restrained makes sense.
Further, the NHS is not going to be suddenly traded in one fell swoop in exchange for access to USA markets. The likelier scenario is that parts of the NHS could be opened up to private service providers from the USA looking to make a tidy profit. It is important to note that private service providers are already used by the NHS, to the tune of £9.2bn in 2018/19, but the fear is that any trade deal could further open up the health service to what is already a controversial topic.
However, fears about private sector encroachment are real, with public palms still stung from New Labour’s misguided PFI follies in the noughties. Despite previous public apathy around the Tories’ handling of the NHS, the pandemic appears to have instilled a new verve in the public’s support of the septuagenarian institution.
The Tories will likely have to tread very carefully should they wish to grant American access, or take the electoral gamble that, just like the previous elections, the focus of voters is either elsewhere or not furious enough to remove them from office. The bottom line is that, no, the Tories aren’t going to sell off the NHS. Not all at once, anyway. But there are ultimately few reasons to trust the Tories on the issue, bar the fact that they haven’t done it already.
With the initial post-Brexit period not proving to be quite the sunlit uplands that had been promised, on top of the economic impact of the pandemic, there may be an increased desire for trade deals. The Tories simply cannot be trusted to keep the NHS off the table.
Image: Number 10 via Flickr