Jeremy Hunt delivers a speech during his visit with David Cameron to the Evelina London Children's Hospital on July 5, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Jeremy Hunt to meet Frank Field to discuss NHS funding crisis

Health Secretary agrees to look at Labour MP's plan to raise National Insurance to fund higher spending. 

Today brings yet more evidence of the NHS funding crisis. As the Nuffield Trust's Into the Red report notes, 66 trusts are now in deficit and require hundreds of millions of emergency funding, and the service is running a total national deficit of £100m compared with a surplus of £383m last year. Of the 78 health leaders surveyed by the group, 47 per cent said it was quite (33 per cent) or very (14 per cent) unlikely that the NHS would remain free at the point of use in a decade's time. 

Without a real-terms increase in spending in the next parliament, the funding gap will stand at £30bn by 2021. Demographic pressures, the rising cost of technology and the growth in chronic conditions all mean that merely ring-fencing the service from cuts will not do. 

In my column in this week's magazine, I look at how Labour is grappling with this issue. The most notable proposal has come from Frank Field, who has argued for a 1 per cent rise in National Insurance, accompanied by the lifting of the floor on contributions and the removal of the ceiling. He told me: "It both deals with the health service and deals with the double Ed problem, which is: does anyone believe them on the fiscal side?"

The plan is partly modelled on Gordon Brown’s 1 per cent increase in NI in his 2002 Budget, a move that proved more popular than almost anyone expected. Miliband, who as a Treasury adviser helped to design the policy, later described this act of social-democratic statecraft as his proudest moment. But, as I write, there is little prospect of a sequel. Shadow cabinet ministers, including Ed Balls, believe that is untenable for the party to speak of a "cost-of-living crisis" and then to argue for a rise in taxation on low- and middle-income earners. "It would be kamikaze politics," one tells me.

If Labour is to promise a real-terms rise in NHS spending, it will need to impose further tax rises on high-earners, or cut even more deeply elsewhere. Miliband will need to speak what Nye Bevan called "the language of priorities" ("the religion of socialism"). 

Meanwhile, as Field looks elsewhere for support, I can reveal that Jeremy Hunt has agreed to meet him to discuss his funding plan. While there might be little prospect of the Tories going into the election advocating an increase in taxation (indeed, David Cameron and George Osborne are determined to make tax one of their main dividing lines with Labour), it is significant that the Health Secretary is prepared to engage with Field, one of the few in Westminster prepared to speak the hard truths about the fiscal challenges that await the next government.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.