There was an interesting exchange during PMQs (Prime Minister’s Questions) this week during Theresa May’s latest drubbing at the hands of a battle-hardened Jeremy Corbyn.
Her ‘answers’ (for want of a better word) to Corbyn’s questioning on the NHS were an object lesson in the Tories’ modus operandi when it comes to NHS spending – lie or misdirect. But she may also have committed a Freudian slip, exposing the Tories’ true plans in a way she didn’t intend.
Mrs May repeated her long-debunked claim that the Tories have given the NHS £10bn a year in extra funding and Corbyn’s response was as close to “You’re lying” as anyone ever gets in the House of Commons by reminding her that she’s been told by the statistics authority and her own Health Committee Chair that it’s far less than £10bn – backed up by said Chair, former Conservative health minister Sarah Wollaston, who was clearly seen nodding and saying “Yes, £4.5bn, £4.5bn!”.
So much for the lie – and knowingly lying to the House used to be an automatic resignation matter. But the misdirection?
In response to Corbyn’s question whether the government would provide health and social care services with the funding they need in order to provide the support people need, May responded,
Over this Parliament, the Government will be spending half a trillion pounds on the national health service.
Now, half a trillion – £500 billion – sounds like a lot of money. And no doubt that was the Prime Minister’s intention – Tories love to throw big numbers around in the hope that we won’t look beyond them. But is it?
Not really. Not in context.
NHS England’s budget for the current 2016/17 financial year is £107bn (for the whole NHS it’s around £116bn, but spending in Scotland and Wales is devolved). Even assuming that stays flat, with no increase to offset inflation, across a 5-year Parliament that’s £535 billion – substantially more than the £500bn Theresa May claimed.
And as we’ve seen, Tories never miss a chance to exaggerate their spending on the NHS.
Now you might, just, consider that she was just rounding down, that “half a trillion” makes a better sound-bite than “£535 billion”. But that’s not the end of the story.
The PM, as we saw, repeated her false claim of putting an extra £10bn into the NHS. The NHS budget of £107bn does not include this money – it’s ‘extra’. Add that figure into the remaining financial years of this goverment and you’re looking at an extra £30bn – so around £565bn.
You don’t round down an extra £65bn for a sound-bite – especially if you’re a Tory.
Even if you only use the best-case figure accepted by the Commons Health Committee of £4.5bn, that’s £13.5bn more, meaning a total of almost £55obn, still way more than she admitted.
Even if the highest figure was true, it’s pathetically inadequate given the massive extra burden shifted onto the NHS by the government’s massive cuts in social care funding. But you can guarantee that the Tories would not forego the chance to crow about the highest figure they felt they could get away with claiming.
Yet Mrs May said ‘half a trillion’.
Sloppy thinking or Freudian slip? Difficult to say at the moment but given the Tories’ track record on the NHS it’s deeply worrying.