If the UK votes to leave the EU, there will be fewer immigrants and more money for the NHS. This has become the Out campaign’s mantra. Having been soundly beaten on economic territory, its best hope lies in raising the salience of these issues.
At a press briefing at Vote Leave’s HQ earlier today, Michael Gove sought to do so. The Justice Secretary unveiled a new document estimating migration from potential future EU members (Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey) and promised a “cash transfusion” for the NHS if Britain backed withdrawal. On the day that the health service announced the biggest deficit in its history (£2.45bn), Gove spoke of his Damascene conversion to higher spending.
“During this campaign, I’ve been struck very strongly by the desire of people across the country for more resources for the NHS. One of the great things about this referendum debate is that it is forcing everybody to think about the biggest political issues in new ways. And it’s made me rethink some things. If democracy means anything, it means to we who are privileged to serve as MPs must listen to the public’s priorities. There is no greater priority, as far as I can tell, than our NHS.”
Like Labour at the last general election, Gove is hoping that affection for Britain’s “national religion” will counter his side’s lack of economic trust. He added: “The NHS leadership has said that just in order to stand still it needs another £30bn every year by 2020 from a combination of new money and efficiency savings. NHS leaders have plans to meet that target by generating £22bn from savings and receiving £8bn in new money. Respected think-tanks such as the Nuffield Trust, the Health Foundation and the King’s Fund all acknowledge that it will be incredibly difficult to find £22bn of efficiency savings. And today the spotlight is once more back on NHS finances and the huge challenge that our health service faces. Now, I know that the government and NHS professionals will do all they can to make efficiencies and support these savings. But there is one obvious additional source of money which we could use to support the heath service. I propose that after we vote to leave on 23 June, the government uses millions of pounds saved from ending EU contributions to give a cash transfusion to the NHS.”
When pressed, Gove refused to give a figure for the promised injection. “We spend or we give the EU £350m a week [gross]. Some of that money we will continue to devote to supporting farmers, some of it to structural funds, some of it to science and then there will be hundreds of millions of pounds that we can spend additionally on the NHS.”
More revealing was Gove’s response when asked whether he would continue his campaign for higher spending even if the UK voted to remain. “Yes,” he simply replied. This was notable in two respects. First, it broke the rule that campaigns should never publicly contemplate defeat. Second, it bound the Conservative Justice Secretary to the cause of higher spending on one of Britain’s most socialist institutions. Gove’s conversion is now for life, not just for the referendum.