Boris Johnson is usually thought of, even by his friends, as being a consummately calculating politician. His schemes don’t always come off – his sacrifice of the British economy in order to secure the keys to No 10 has still not quite borne fruit – but the desiccated calculating machine that lurks beneath that buffoonish blonde barnet is always thrashing away, always balancing equations, always discounting future possibilities – always searching for the main chance.
His plea for extra funding for the NHS, presented to Cabinet and extensively briefed and trailed beforehand, looks like a naked grab for some useful headlines for old Bozza, who will never give up his dreams of the leadership of his party and nation. That’s because it was, and he knew full well that this is not the Theresa May way of conducting official business. No wonder “he got a complete bitch slap” from May for his troubles, according to a source present at the cabinet meeting. That, though, will suit Boris perfectly; valiant battler for the NHS felled by the scalpel of Cruella de May.
The notion of an unfunded NHS spending boost appeals to worried Tory backbenchers frightened of Labour’s continuing challenge to their power, and to their jobs. It is supposed to appease public opinion concern about the real crises facing the NHS. It gratifies Leave voters still looking for the £350m a week promised so cynically on the side of the Brexit bus.
The extra (only) £100m a week for the health service has already been labelled a “Brexit premium” by “friends” of the Foreign Secretary: Johnson seeking political vindication for Brexit by using other people’s money to pay for it pretty much sums things up. The money won’t, in reality, come from Brussels but from higher taxes or reduced spending elsewhere in the public services, or maybe more borrowing to be paid for by generations to come. If it ever did arrive.
And yet it isn’t even a very good idea. Just being nakedly political here, the NHS has never been and will never be the Tories’ issue. No one ever voted Conservative to save the NHS (maybe Jeremy Hunt, but that’s it). It has been safe Labour territory even in the party’s worst years since 1948 when the Labour government founded the NHS and the Conservative opposition (led by Johnson’s hero Winston Churchill) opposed “socialist medicine”.
The irony, to be fair, is that some Conservative governments have had a better track record on health than they are given much credit for, because their historic image on the NHS is so dismal. Margaret Thatcher infamously said that she preferred private medical care so that she could go to the hospital on the day she wanted, at the time she wanted, and with a doctor she wanted. That attitude rather overshadowed the real-terms increases in spending her governments delivered for the NHS. No one believed those figures then – that no previous government had spent so much on the NHS – and they don’t believe them now.
An extra £100m for the NHS would undoubtedly help the health service through its crises; but, from a purely selfish Conservative point of view, it is frankly a political waste of money. There are far more promising swing voters that the money could be directly targeted at, the sorts of people who expect a Conservative government to deliver rising living standards and lower taxes. Sure, they may say to a pollster that they’d be happy to pay more tax for the NHS, but the general lesson of history is that they soon put their own family’s finances first when they get to the privacy of the polling booths, and vote Tory.
Throwing money at the NHS is of no use to the Tory party or Theresa May, but talking about it makes Boris look like a softer, more compassionate, more modernising sort of Tory, set against the rather flinty, you might even say “nasty”, May. It makes him look good, and her cold (not difficult, that).
I very much doubt, in fact, that a government led by Boris Johnson would ever find itself in possession of the fabled Brexit premium. If it did, I’m not sure the doctors and nurses would actually see much of it. As many of his cabinet colleagues have publicly warned us – Amber Rudd and Michael Gove, for example – Boris is not a man to be taken at face value or trusted with the highest office in the land. He is not to be trusted with the NHS either.