While Johnson remains the frontrunner to return to Downing Street, Tory campaigners are nervous about a key issue that could give their leader serious heartburn: health.
If Corbyn is to believed, Thursday’s general election could be fatal for the seven-decade old NHS, Britain’s treasured equivalent to Medicare. The Labour leader has entered the final week of the general election hammering the highly misleading but politically potent claim that a Johnson victory would see the NHS “sold off” to the highest bidder.
Like Bill Shorten’s “Mediscare” ploy of 2016, the NHS scare campaign has taken hold because it has been sewn in fertile ground. In Australia, Labor’s claims gained traction because the government had been examining ways to outsource the digital payments component of Medicare and public trust was low following then prime minister Tony Abbott’s huge cuts in the 2014 budget. In Britain, public hospitals are groaning in the wake of austerity measures, and parts of the system have already been outsourced. The Health Service Journal has estimated NHS England spent about 9 per cent of its £10.5 billion budget on purchasing healthcare from external providers last financial year.
David Hare, the chief executive of the Independent Healthcare Providers Network which represents major private sector firms, says the privatisation argument is “as old as the hills”.
“The reality is that the NHS has always blended public and private sector provision and what matters to patients is that it is high quality and free at the point of use,” Hare says. “When NHS waiting times are at a record high, we desperately need a more mature political debate on the health service which focuses solely on how to improve patient care, not who provides it.”
Perhaps the most powerful weapon at Labour’s disposal is United States President Donald Trump, a deeply unpopular figure in Britain and whose arrival in London this week for a NATO meeting presented potential pre-election landmines for the Conservatives.
When grilled for evidence to support his claims that the NHS will go under the hammer, Corbyn points all the way to the White House and the boardrooms of major American pharmaceutical companies. The core of his argument is that when officials from Washington and London sit down to thrash out a free-trade deal after Britain leaves the European Union, US firms will use the negotiations to increase the price of drugs sold to the NHS.
The Tory manifesto says drug prices “will not be on the table” and having earlier said pharmaceuticals would be part of negotiations, Trump this week promised the US had no interest in the NHS even if it was “handed it to us on a silver platter”.
But former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull says his own experience negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (before Trump later withdrew from it) highlights the power and influence of the pharmaceutical lobby. He predicts the US will push for drug prices to be discussed when trade talks begin. “Johnson is perfectively entitled to say drug prices are not negotiable and that they aren’t going to touch it,” Turnbull says. “Then the riposte from the Americans may be ‘well if you take that off the table, that means you wont get a deal done’. And this is the problem [Johnson’s] got. He’s talking about doing a deal with the US but he doesn’t know what that deal would look like.”
Tactically, Corbyn is using the uncertain shape of a trade deal to his advantage. And it seems to be working. New opinion polls suggest health has overtaken Brexit as the most important issue for many voters, and the focus on health goes some way to countering Corbyn’s dismal personal approval ratings. A recent Ipsos Mori poll found 50 per cent of respondents thought Johnson would make the most capable prime minster compared with just three in 10 for Corbyn. Corbyn’s likeability ratings in late November were also the worst the pollster had seen for a Labour or Conservative leader since 2007.
Undeterred by denials from his opponents, Corbyn upped the stakes ahead of Trump’s visit to London, calling a press conference for a “major announcement”. When he arrived, the Labour leader brandished 451 pages of government trade documents he said proved the NHS was at risk. “The uncensored documents leave Boris Johnson’s denials in absolute tatters,” Corbyn told reporters. “We have now got evidence that under Boris Johnson the NHS is on the table and will be up for sale. He tried to cover it up in a secret agenda and today it has been exposed.”
The documents covered six rounds of talks between Washington and London officials stretching from mid-2017 to later this year, and showed the US is keen to talk drug pricing when negotiations kick off. The problem was the documents had already been canvassed by a television program and also uploaded online weeks earlier. And there was no evidence that British ministers had agreed that the health service could be part of trade negotiations.
Corbyn has also been challenged on a claim that a US trade deal could force the NHS in England to pay an extra £519 million a week for drugs – a huge figure given the current weekly bill is only about £346 million. The prime ministerial aspirant drew the figure from a television interview conducted by a university expert who has since distanced himself from the “worst-case scenario” calculation.
Turnbull was cautious to directly attack Corbyn but agrees there are similarities between Shorten and Corbyn’s privatisation claims. He says with hindsight his government should have hit back at “Mediscare” sooner and harder, and is urging Johnson to do the same in the final week of the British election campaign.
“What is important is to nail the lie and also make it clear that pharmaceuticals are a no-go zone. You can not assume the inherent implausibility of what your opponent is saying is enough for people to not believe it,” he says.
From her bench outside the hospital, Colton at least isn’t buying what Corbyn is selling. “I couldn’t vote for Corbyn, even if the NHS was his main platform, because I just could never support the bloke. I don’t like him,” she says. “But there are a lot of people whose vote this whole issue might swing.”
Bevan Shields is the Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.