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23 January 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:27pm

Whatever you think of Boris Johnson, he’s got the right idea for the NHS

The Chancellor, Phillip Hammond, has already told the Foreign Secretary to keep his beak out.

By Stephen Bush

Tuesday morning’s alright for fighting: Boris Johnson will launch a well-briefed plea for more money for the National Health Service at Cabinet today – not quite £350m week but a not-inconsiderable £100m extra.

It’s already earned a public rebuke from Philip Hammond, who has essentially told Johnson that he is the Foreign Secretary, not the Chancellor or the Health Secretary, and to keep his beak out.

Theresa May is famously stubborn and the very public bid for money, plus the attendant referendum psychodrama of who promised what back in 2016, means that the Cabinet might well ignore Johnson.

But the frustrating truth is that Johnson is right: for all the displacement activity around cross-party consensus or a royal commission, the health service’s problem is clear: if you have spending increases of three to four per cent every year in real terms then you keep pace with what voters expect, albeit with the odd tough patch in a bad winter. If you don’t, you don’t. What should be worrying the government more than it is that it has been a very warm winter – this crisis might be happening in winter but it isn’t an “NHS winter crisis” in the way we usually use that term.

As Johnson and his cronies in Vote Leave have shown you can use the crisis to get people to take some pretty radical risks and there’s every chance that will work for Labour, who start with a strong advantage where the NHS is concerned. Something that has stayed with me from my trip to Watford to see some of BritainThinks’ focus groups in action is how both groups – the over 55s and the under 30s – were pretty uncertain who the answer when the question of whether PM May or PM Corbyn would be better for the economy, for the country, for their own prosperity etc. But when the question of the NHS came up everyone’s eyes lit up in that way people do when an easy answer came up: Labour, definitely, was the verdict.

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The pressures on the NHS have been going on for some time now and they are less newsworthy than a Cabinet back-and-forth or relitigating the referendum campaign. But the crisis doesn’t need to be on the frontpages or indeed anywhere for people to notice it – the NHS is the largest employer in the UK and everyone knows someone who works in it or uses it. (Another thing I came away from both those focus groups reminded of: people in the bubble might think that Labour go on and on about the NHS but they’ve got nothing on the voters.) Johnson, whatever you may think of him, is right: the biggest asset to the Labour party is the crisis in the NHS and there can be no respite for the Conservative government without addressing that first.

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