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11 January 2017

PMQs review: Theresa May tries to avoid the NHS

As Jeremy Corbyn warned that she was in "denial" over the "crisis", the PM sought to shift attention to the economy. 

By George Eaton

With every PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn appears less and less of a break with the past. “Our NHS is in crisis but the Prime Minister is in denial,” he declared today, a line used by Labour leaders down the ages. After divisions over immigration and maximum wage laws, Corbyn focused solely on the issue of health (as many MPs have wanted him to).

Though Labour is often accused of crying wolf over the NHS, it isn’t only the opposition that is alarmed. In a much-quoted description, the Red Cross has warned of a “humanitarian crisis”. Theresa May rejected this as “irresponsible and overblown” but she found it harder to dismiss the figure cited by Corbyn: 1.8m people waited longer than four hours in A&E departments last year.

When May insisted that more people were being treated, Corbyn moved from the macro to the micro. He cited the case of an NHS worker’s 22-month old nephew who was treated on two plastic chairs held together by a blanket. May conceded that there had been a “small number of incidents” where “unacceptable practices” have taken place. “Small?” cried Labour MPs (there were 18,000 trolley waits of more than four hours last week).

May soon gave the impression of someone who wanted to change the subject. “We can only fund social care and NHS if we have a strong economy,” she declared (a line straight from David Cameron’s 2015 script). Brexit gives Labour the chance to argue that the Tories have threatened that aim but that is a blow the opposition has yet to land.

Both leaders appeared happier playing at home (Corbyn on the NHS, May on the economy) than away. Corbyn’s soundbites, however, have notably sharpened: “Earlier this week, the Prime Minister said she wanted to create a ‘shared society’. Well, we’ve certainly got that. More people sharing hospital corridors on trolleys. More people sharing waiting areas in A&E departments. More people sharing in anxiety created by this government.”

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He demanded that May cancel the planned corporation tax cuts and “spend the money where it’s needed, on people in desperate need in social care or in our hospitals.” In response, the PM derided Corbyn’s “relaunch”.

“Yesterday he proved that he is not only incompetent but he would destroy our economy and that would devastate our NHS.”

Once again, May used the health of the economy as a metric for the health of the NHS. But though the former has so far avoided recession, the latter is faring less well. As much as the PM may wish otherwise, this will not be the last chance that Corbyn gets to warn of “a crisis”.