In a long tradition, stretching back as far as 2016, of American presidents interfering in British politics, Donald Trump yesterday tried to be helpful to Boris Johnson.
Just as Barack Obama tried to be helpful to David Cameron by saying, during our referendum campaign, that Britain would be “at the back of the queue” for a US trade deal if we left the EU, President Trump tried to help his friend the prime minister in the middle of an election campaign.
Jeremy Corbyn has accused Johnson of wanting to put the NHS up for sale to the US, so President Trump said he wouldn’t want the health service to be included in trade talks if it were offered “on a silver platter”.
Not only does this sound like protesting too much, it is unwise for foreign leaders to offer any opinion on British politics in the first place. Leave voters in 2016 resented being told what to do by Obama; Remain and Labour voters will react badly to Trump’s unconvincing assurances.
They are unconvincing not because the president and prime minister are engaged in a conspiracy to undermine the NHS, but because of the realities of trade negotiations.
The threat to the NHS is not – as Corbyn sometimes suggests – that the Conservatives want to break it up and sell hospitals to the highest bidder. No British politician could expect ever to be re-elected if they attempted any such thing, and Conservatives in particular know the dangers they face if they are seen as unbelievers in the national religion.
They have had some success as defenders of the faith, too. A Deltapoll survey last weekend asked what would be best for the NHS, and found “a Conservative government led by Boris Johnson with Matt Hancock as health secretary” had a 10-point advantage over “a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn with Jon Ashworth as health secretary”. The prime minister tried to reinforce this reputation yesterday, saying he could “categorically rule out” that “any part of the NHS will be on the table in any trade negotiations”.
He included drugs in that – but that is the problem.
The NHS buys a lot of drugs from US companies, and it is able to use its huge buying power to secure low prices. But it is also protected by the even greater leverage of being inside the EU.
Some US drugs companies are looking at the prospect of negotiating with Britain in a weaker position outside the EU. As we report today, the US chamber of commerce last month noted the problem of opening up the healthcare market in Europe and said: “It should prove easier to overcome these challenges with the UK as an individual negotiating partner.”
The danger is not that the Conservatives are ideologically opposed to the NHS and want to undermine it, but that they are in favour of Brexit, and that puts the UK in a weaker negotiating position. Not only will the UK government lack the clout of being part of the EU’s giant market, but it will be desperate to strike a trade deal with the US – because otherwise what was the point of leaving?
“It’s going to be a very important election for this great country, but I have no thoughts on it,” said the US president, before offering his thoughts on it. British voters may have no thoughts about Trump – except to assume that if he says something, the opposite may be true.
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