Why the NHS shouldn’t be spared from cuts

Protecting the £110bn national health budget entails unjustified cuts elsewhere.

This morning's Independent reports on growing anger among Conservative MPs over the coalition's costly pledge to ring-fence spending on the NHS. We can expect opposition to intensify as the autumn spending review (due on 20 October) draws closer.

A Tory backbencher is quoted as saying: "MPs are getting a reaction in their constituencies about the cuts to the school-building programme. They are wondering why the NHS should be protected when the future of our children is apparently not." It's a good point. The Tories' promise to protect the NHS (and International Development) from cuts has everything to do with politics and nothing to do with economics.

The decision not to touch the £110bn NHS budget (the development budget is a far smaller £6.2bn) is part of the reason why other departments of key importance (Transport, Housing, Local Government) are now facing savage cuts of up to 33 per cent.

There is a good argument for treating the NHS with care: factors such as an ageing population, drug prices and technology make inflation in the health service roughly 3 per cent higher than in the rest of the economy. But, as in the case of education, this should make the NHS a candidate for limited cuts (about 5-10 per cent), not for no cuts at all.

To his credit, Andy Burnham, the former health secretary and Labour leadership candidate, has argued as much: "The effect is that he [George Osborne] is damaging, in a serious way, the ability of other public services to cope: he will visit real damage on other services that are intimately linked to the NHS."

So far, Labour has failed to land any hefty blows on the coalition over spending cuts. The party's message (when one is discernible) is always hindered by the question: what would you cut? Coming out against ring-fencing could help the party to answer this question.

It could be Labour's Nixon-in-China moment: only the party of the NHS can be trusted to cut with care. It is time to expose the Tories' pledge for the political positioning that it is.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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On Brexit, David Cameron knows exactly what he's doing

It's not a dead cat - it's about disarming the Leave campaign. 

If you’re explaining, you’re losing. That’s the calculation behind David Cameron’s latest entry into the In-Out (or Remain-Leave in new money) battle. The Prime Minister has warned that were Britain to leave the European Union, the migrant camp at Calais – popularly known as “the Jungle” – could move to Britain. But Eurosceptic campaigners have angrily denounced the remarks, saying that there’s little chance of it happening either way.  

Who’s right? My colleague Henry Zeffman has written a handy explainer of the ins and outs of the row, but the short version is: the Eurosceptic campaigners are broadly right.

But the remarks are very far from a gaffe by Downing Street or Cameron, and they aren’t a “dead cat” strategy – where you say something offensive, prompting a debate about that instead of another, trickier issue – either.

Campaigners for Remain have long been aware that immigration remains their glass jaw. The line wheeled out by Cameron has been long-planned. Late last year, senior members of the In campaign discussed what they saw as the danger points for the campaign. The first was a renegotiation that managed to roll back workplace rights, imperilling the support of the Labour party and the trade unions was one – happily avoided by Cameron’s piecemeal deal.

That the deal would be raked over in the press is not considered a risk point. Stronger In has long known that its path to victory does not run through a sympathetic media. The expectation has long been that even substantial concessions would doubtless have been denounced by the Mail, Telegraph and Sun – and no-one seriously expected that Cameron would emerge with a transformative deal. Since well before the general election, the Prime Minister has been gradually scaling back his demands. The aim has always been to secure as many concessions as possible in order to get an In vote – but Downing Street’s focus has always been on the “as possible” part rather than the “securing concessions” bit.

Today’s row isn’t about deflecting attention from a less-than-stellar deal, but about defanging another “risk point” for the In campaign: border control.

Campaign strategists believe they can throw the issue into neutral by casting doubt on Leave’s ability to control borders any better. One top aide said: “Our line is this: if we vote to leave, the border moves from Calais to Dover, it’s that simple.” They are also keen to make more of the fact that Norway has equally high levels of migration from the European Union as the United Kingdom. While In will never “own” the issue of immigration, they believe they can make the battle sufficiently murky that voters will turn to the areas that favour a Remain vote – national security, economic stability, and keeping people in their jobs.

What the row exposes, rather than a Prime Minister under pressure is a politician who knows exactly what he’s doing – and just how vulnerable the lack of a serious heavyweight at the top makes the Leave campaign(s). Most people won't make a judgement based on reading up the minutinae of European treaties, but on a "sniff test" of which side they think is more trustworthy. It's not a fight about the facts - it's a fight about who is more trusted by the public: David Cameron, or Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling or Priti Patel? As one minister said to me: "I like Priti, but the idea that she can go against the PM as far as voters are concerned is ridiculous. Most people haven't heard of her." 

Leave finds itself in a position uncomfortably like that of Labour in the run-up to the election: with Cameron able to paint himself as the only option guaranteeing stability, against a chaotic and muddled alternative. Without a politician, a business figure or even a prominent celebrity who can provide credibility on the level of the Prime Minister, any row about whether or not Brexit increases the chances of more migrants on Britain’s doorsteps helps Remain – and Cameron. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.