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24 January 2018

Yet more cabinet rows leaked as MPs fight cuts and Theresa May’s leadership

Boris Johnson’s plea for more money for the NHS was rebuffed, while Gavin Williamson secured a new review of defence spending.

By Stephen Bush

Yesterday turned out to be a bad day in the office for Boris Johnson, whose plea for more money for the NHS was rebuffed by the cabinet, while he himself received a series of tellings-off about the need for confidentiality in the cabinet. (The contents of which have, of course, been leaked.)  

Even those ministers who agreed with him criticised his tactics and the only semi-sympathetic write-up is from Johnson’s supporters club aka theTelegraph.

There’s a crucial detail of the meeting that is reported almost everywhere but not I think given the prominence it deserves: that Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, criticised Johnson’s methods but agreed with the need for money. That should be read in concert with today’s other big but largely unnoticed story: that Gavin Williamson has successfully secured a new review of defence spending and five months to make the case against cuts.

The Johnson-Williamson rows are rightly being seen as part of the next Tory leadership election: Johnson needs to maintain some level of viability and Williamson knows that if he ends his time at the MOD having seen off the Treasury axe then that will dispel some of the taint of his rapid promotion among Conservative MPs.

But although both interventions are partly about the race to replace Theresa May, they aren’t wholly concerned by it. They’re also about austerity and the vanishingly small pool of support – I mean real support, not just rhetorical – that fiscal retrenchment now enjoys even at the top of the cabinet.

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One the (political) successes of George Osborne’s first five years in power was that he was able to concentrate the pain on small numbers of people who mostly voted Labour anyway.

Social care is a good example: it takes up around half of local government spending and most of the benefits accrue to ten per cent of the local population. But now that politically painless cut is having huge repercussions for the health service, which is in any case feeling the strain from seven years of restrained spending increases. Conservative MPs don’t want more cuts in defence and neither do defence ministers. There is no appetite for more cuts to school spending and no Tory MP wants to go to the country with school cuts a live issue as they were in the last one. Which sort of leaves the government in a position where it supports cuts in theory but opposes them all in practice.

The rows in the cabinet are being aired more publicly because the Prime Minister is weak and politicians are gearing up for the contest to come when she eventually steps down. But their central cause isn’t May’s weakness, but a programme that has, politically speaking, run out of road. 

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