Theresa May used to dream of winning a landslide election victory. At the final PMQs of the year, she was content to celebrate merely remaining Prime Minister. Jeremy Corbyn, May noted, had not entered No.10 by Christmas (in defiance of his reported prediction). The PM further boasted that she had advanced to Phase Two of the Brexit negotiations (as Labour said she would not).
But though May cut a more confident figure than at any time since the general election (“more, more, more,” cried Tory MPs), she would be wise to prepare for worse. As Corbyn noted, 2018 may be the toughest year the NHS has ever endured. Though health leaders warned they needed £4bn simply to “stand still”, the government offered just £1.8bn. May boasted of record NHS funding but an ageing population, higher drugs costs and chronic conditions mean a modest increase is insufficient.
Last month, Corbyn observed, 50,000 people were left waiting on trolleys and 12,000 in the back of ambulances “because there was no room at the A&E”. And the social care crisis, largely ignored by the Conservatives since their ill-fated “dementia tax”, is only growing (the subject was not even mentioned in the recent Budget).
But May caught Corbyn unawares when she asked “Who was it who described Labour’s NHS legacy as a mess? It was the Right Honourable Gentleman! When he’s running for leader he denounces the Labour party, now he’s leader of the Labour party he’s trying to praise it.” After Corbyn’s robust defence of the last Labour government in recent weeks, this was a reminder of how his past criticisms (albeit many justified) can be deployed against him.
But at Christmas, in particular, Corbyn’s peroration (designed for viral videos and the Six O’Clock News) will resonate with voters. “Nurses and other workers, no pay rise for years. NHS targets, not met for years. Staff shortages and GP numbers falling. Mental health budgets have been cut, social care budgets cut, public health budgets cut. The Prime Minister today has shown just how out of touch she is. The truth is our NHS is being recklessly put at risk by her government.”
After the longest period of austerity in the NHS’s history, the health service will be content to avoid disaster in 2018. May, one suspects, feels much the same way.