“The NHS is not for sale,” declared Matt Hancock, the health secretary, in response to US ambassador Woody Johnson saying it should be part of any future US-UK trade deal.
“Yes we’d love to make it cheaper to buy your life-saving pharmaceuticals - but the NHS will not be on the table in any future trade talks,” the Tory leadership contender continued. “My American friends know this.”
The harsh reality is that Mr Hancock’s American friends know full well that when he said what he said, he was talking out of what the doctors he’s notionally in charge of like to call the sphincter ani externus, but that the yanks he pals around with would probably refer to more simply as his ass.
Followers of American politics know that truth is a flexible thing when it comes to the Trump administration but with his statement Johnson was giving us the pure and unvarnished version of it because of course the entire UK economy would be up for grabs in talks about a trade deal with Donald Trump’s America. That would have to include the NHS, which is a big part of it, otherwise what would there be to talk about?
Hancock was suggesting that he’d go into those talks saying that yes, we love open economies and free trade. Didn’t you see the banner Liam Fox was showing off to the world’s plutocrats at Davos? But when it comes to our prime asset, one of the very best bits of UK plc, we’re going to come over all protectionist because if we don’t the peasants on these shores would revolt. They quite like what you refer to as “socialised medicine” because it works rather well, and certainly a lot better than your system that forces people into crowd funding to secure life saving treatments.
So we want that bit taken out of any deal.
Tell you what, as long as you stick a label on the product, we’ll let your farmers ship over as much of their chlorinated or acid washed chicken as they want, and maybe some hormone treated beef too.
How’s that sound?
What it sounds like is a recipe for the US trade negotiation team to have a quiet chuckle before coming back with something like: “Call us when you’ve got something sensible to offer. By the way, how are you guys enjoying your post-Brexit recession? Food banks got enough un-chlorinated chicken?”
That would likely be true even if America had a president who paid more than lip service to the idea of the so-called “special relationship" Hancock’s Tories get terribly excited about and who genuinely believed in global trade liberalisation (which Donald Trump assuredly does not).
Don’t forget, too, that a US-UK deal would also have to get through the US congress. Many of its members are in the pockets of the powerful American healthcare lobby and could be counted upon to block anything it didn’t like.
With his apparent claim that the UK would be able to negotiate a deal that gets the NHS cheaper drugs without allowing US companies in, Hancock was either indulging in A, the sort of magical thinking that’s all too prevalent in today's Tory Party, B, a lie of truly Trumpian portions, or, C, a combination of the two.
The fact is if a post-Brexit Britain wants a trade deal with Donald Trump then the NHS is up for grabs, and sod the interests of patients. Take the NHS off the table and what does the UK have to offer? If your answer is “not much” give yourself a gold star.
PS, here’s one for Jeremy Corbyn and his merry band of Lexiters to chew over.
The next Tory leader won’t be Matt Hancock. It’s more likely to be someone with a lot less attachment to the service than he claims to love, someone who’ll agree to Johnson’s, and Trump’s terms and open up the hospital doors.
Once the NHS becomes part of a Tory trade deal, the inevitable privatisation of its services that would be a part of it would be all but irreversible. The only way a government committed to reversing the involvement of private firms in the service would be able to change that would be to renegotiate it. To make it fly they’d probably have to offer to give up something very significant in the process. Small children perhaps.
It’s not just the Tories that are guilty of magical thinking when it comes to post-Brexit trade and the UK economy.
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