“You can’t out-Corbyn Corbyn”: the problem with Theresa May’s £20bn NHS funding boost

It’s not the amount offered to the NHS that matters, but what people make of the healthcare they are currently receiving.

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There is a magic money tree, and it's called the Brexit dividend. Theresa May's announcement yesterday that the NHS will receive an extra £20bn by the year 2023, financed by the money saved by leaving the European Union, receives a roasting in this morning's papers.

The problem is that according to the government's own projections, there will be no Brexit dividend, and indeed, Theresa May has already committed to spending some of the United Kingdom's contribution to the European Union's budget on the parts of EU membership we wish to retain after Brexit and has guaranteed that others will continue to flow to the same sources, not least British farming.

But let's say for argument's sake that every serious projection is wrong and there is a bonanza Brexit dividend in 2021 or whenever the transition ends. It could happen, just as the public finances could be transformed when some plucky Brit invents the next Facebook next year. But a boost to the public finances in the spring of 2021 won't help Philip Hammond find money for the scheme in the autumn of 2019.

One of the things everyone forgets about the 2017 election was that Theresa May didn't call it because of Brexit but because she had been defeated on tax-and-spend. It will be tricky for any revenue-raising measure of substance can pass the House of Commons as it stands.

There's an important “but” coming, though: on the whole, the type of Conservative who gets prickly at the suggestion of voting for tax rises is also hugely invested in the Brexit project. They know full well that if Brexit is seen not to deliver that extra funding for the NHS then its longterm prospects as a political proposition are not good. Both Sam Coates in the Times and Guido Fawkes are hearing that Brexiteers will swallow the extra borrowing to see off Jeremy Corbyn at the next election and to protect the referendum outcome, even though they will also have to swallow further concessions by May to the EU27.

The question is, will it work? I woke up this morning to an expletive-filled text from one Conservative MP about the plans containing that phrase that is becoming familiar: “you can't out-Corbyn Corbyn”. In other words, there is no point getting into a spend-off with the Labour party as it will simply double the offer. That sentiment is a cause of comfort in the office of the Labour leader, too.

But the truth is that what matters is not how much money the two parties offer to put into the NHS, but what people make of the healthcare they are currently receiving. Labour were committed to spending less than the historic average on the NHS in their 2017 manifesto but they got a boost anyway because the health service is in a bad state.

I went to Slough last week to sit on another set of BritainThinks focus groups. As has become typical, the worries that dominate are the condition of the NHS and the cost of living, particularly housing. (In a development that may be as much a worry for Sadiq Khan in 2020 as it is for Sajid Javid in 2022, crime also featured for the first time at a session I have attended.)

The assessment that voters will make when they come to judge Conservative vs Labour is not about who has done best in the battle of ideas but whether they are less worried about healthcare and the cost of living than they are today.

And what should worry Tories is not that they can't out-Corbyn Corbyn but that the amount of money they are pledging to the NHS today may still be too little to fix the problem.

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