PMQs: The NHS, the economy and Brexit

The prime minister believes the NHS needs a strong economy. But she’s risking the economy with Brexit. And Jeremy Corbyn fails to say so.

In PMQs today, the prime minister said that Labour “still fail to recognise that you need a strong economy to fund the NHS”. It’s a retort Theresa May uses again and again whenever the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn raises the problems of the NHS in their weekly PMQs battle.

There is something missing from this PMQs exchange. What both the prime minister and opposition leader fail to acknowledge is that with Brexit, Britain is gambling with the economy. So by May’s point, it’s also gambling with the NHS.

Brexit risks reducing the country’s economy. We haven’t left yet but we’re already feeling the consequences from the vote to leave. The weakened pound has led to higher inflation. That Britain’s economy has so far proven to be resilient following the vote is due to the strength of consumer spending. But recent figures from the Office for National Statistics show that is also weakening.

Here’s a reminder of what Theresa May said about the economic arguments for Britain remaining in the EU as reported in the Guardian:

I think the economic arguments are clear. I think being part of a 500-million trading bloc is significant for us. I think, as I was saying to you a little earlier, that one of the issues is that a lot of people will invest here in the UK because it is the UK in Europe.

Theresa May

Jeremy Corbyn should respond to the prime minister’s point about a strong economy being needed to fund the NHS with her own comments. Unfortunately, he chooses not to.

For the economy, single market membership is hard to beat

The prime minister is taking the country down a path that she hopes will lead to a free trade agreement with the EU and many others. However, we’re not convinced that outcome exists outside of a fantasy world… At least not within the two-year timeframe for Brexit negotiations. And even then, research by NIESR suggests that a new trade deal with the EU plus trade deals with a host of other countries still won’t make up for the loss from leaving the single market. The idea that a free trade deal with the EU would not be as good as being part of the single market was also echoed today by the former ambassador to the EU Sir Ivan Rogers. He was giving evidence to MPs in the Brexit committee. You can read more about what Rogers said in the Guardian’s politics live blog. (Always worth doing for an enlightened view over the whole process)

A more likely outcome of this path is that we leave the EU and have to fall back on WTO rules. But even this is not so simple and also risks being even more damaging to the UK. For many economists and even the chancellor, a fall back to WTO rules is the least attractive option.

Brexit also means a hefty deficit as outlined in the chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that for Britain to reduce the deficit, taxes will have to rise and there will still be no more money for public spending.

Reduced immigration also endangers the NHS

It’s not just the economy that will impact the NHS. Lower migration will also impact the NHS. We’re already in danger of having even fewer nurses with fewer students applying for a nursing or midwifery course. Whilst universities are seeing a drop in Brits going into nursing, the Telegraph reports that there are also fewer nurses from the EU registering to work in the UK.

Can’t talk about the NHS and economy without also talking about Brexit

The referendum showed that there are big issues that the British public are divided on. But I think it’s fair to assume that people are united in thinking that the NHS is in trouble and that it is in need of more funding. And in the run up to the referendum, the NHS was a big focal point in the arguments for leaving the EU. Even leading Brexiteer Dominic Cummings said that the claim helped them win. So it’s very odd that the NHS is completely missing from the government’s Brexit plans. It’s also odd that Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t make more of this. Unfortunately, we have an opposition party that is unable to make this argument because it too wants to follow “the will of the people”. Both leaders also seem intent on “the will of the people” having a cut-off date: 23 June 2016.

The least that both parties could do is be upfront with the public about the dangers that Brexit could bring to the NHS. And once we’re out of fantasy land and know what the terms of Brexit are likely to be, both parties shouldn’t be afraid to consult with the people again. During the debate on the Article 50 bill in the House of Lords, this is a point made by Lord Butler. He added that as the matter was so important, it was the government’s duty to be sure that an exit was still what the people wanted.

Image: © John Gomez /
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