British PM's health spending plans fuel talk of early election

LONDON • British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has fuelled expectations of an early election, with an announcement that he will fast-track funding for the country's public health service with £1.8 billion (S$3 billion) to upgrade 20 hospitals.

Mr Johnson, a figurehead for the Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum, promoted the idea - emblazoned on a bus - that Britain could spend £350 million a week on the National Health Service (NHS) if it left the European Union.

Britain's new Prime Minister is moving quickly to meet that and other Brexit pledges, in a bid to restore some of the trust in politicians that has been eroded in the three years since the referendum that deeply divided the country.

But by ushering in a spending spree on health, education and policing after years of austerity, Mr Johnson has fuelled expectations of an early election - something his team says will not happen before Britain leaves the EU on Oct 31.

The opposition Labour Party said the pledge for the NHS did not go far enough to rebuild a service.

Labour's health policy chief Jon Ashworth said: "Our NHS is facing a backlog of £6 billion worth of repairs, putting patients' safety, patients' lives at risk every day."

He said he suspected the government was on an election footing for later this year, when Labour and even some Conservative lawmakers say they will do anything to try to stop Mr Johnson from leading Britain out of the EU without a deal.

It is widely expected that Labour will bring a no-confidence motion in the government after Parliament returns to work next month to try to stop a no-deal Brexit, but Mr Johnson's top aide was reported as saying it would not work.

Mr Dominic Cummings, an architect of the Leave campaign, reportedly said Mr Johnson could schedule a national election after the Oct 31 deadline if he lost a vote of no confidence.

"Lawmakers don't realise that if there is a no-confidence vote in September or October, we'll call an election for after the 31st and leave anyway," Mr Cummings said.

Mr Ashworth was undeterred. "There will be opportunities for us when Parliament returns in September to stop no deal," he told Sky News.

Writing in The Sunday Times newspaper, Mr Johnson said he wanted to get more funding to the front line of the NHS to try to stop "the delays, the cancellations".

"Which is why I am so determined to deliver now on the promises of that 2016 referendum campaign: not just to honour the will of the people, but to increase the cash available for this amazing national institution," he wrote.

"It is thanks to this country's strong economic performance that we are now able to announce £1.8 billion more for the NHS to buy vital new kits and confirm new upgrades for 20 hospitals across the country."

A source confirmed that the government was planning to bring forward a commitment made by his predecessor Theresa May to give the NHS an additional £20 billion by 2023.

Mr Johnson has said he is willing to funnel more money into public services, using the previous government's so-called "fiscal headroom", which had been earmarked to support the economy through a no-deal Brexit.

But on Thursday, the Bank of England lowered its growth forecasts, showing a one-in-three chance that the economy would be shrinking in annual terms by the end of the first quarter of next year, even without a disruptive Brexit.

Asked where the money would come from for the NHS, Mr James Cleverly, chairman of the governing Conservative Party, said the funding would come from "economic growth".

"We're now in a place where the economy is performing significantly better, much better, and that enables us to do what all governments want to do, which is to make sure the public services on which people rely are in good order," he told Sky News.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 05, 2019, with the headline 'British PM's health spending plans fuel talk of early election'. Print Edition | Subscribe