A radical plan for Jeremy Corbyn to deliver the Brexiteers’ promise of £350m a week for the NHS was dropped amid party infighting and indecision, HuffPost UK has learned.
The Labour leader was advised to kick off 2017 with the eye-catching pledge in a bid to outflank the Tory government while appealing directly to Leave voters.
But Corbyn decided not to go ahead with the £18bn-a-year commitment after Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell failed to respond to detailed funding options and leadership aides failed to agree, party sources have claimed.
Several options were proposed by aides, including a hypothecated health and social care tax, savings from procurement and consultants, EU savings and other redirected taxes.
Backers of the idea felt it would be a “judo move”, using the figure cited on Boris Johnson’s infamous Vote Leave battlebus to show that Labour was the only party prepared to fully fund the NHS for the long term.
Research and polling among all the major parties shows that the figure is one of the few that the public remembers from the EU referendum campaign.
Theresa May has declined to commit to the sum and senior Labour insiders felt at the turn of the year that there was a chance for the party to grab the political initiative with a pitch to unite both Leave and Remain voters.
The pledge - part of a planned “populist relaunch” of Corbyn’s leadership in January - was also set to highlight the winter crisis in the health service as hospital A&E units across England faced unprecedented pressure.
Even though the Vote Leave campaign’s £350m a week claim has been widely discredited, the figure itself is seen as in fact roughly the kind of extra investment needed to pay for healthcare.
Yet the Labour leader was unable to promise the cash because the policy plan underpinning it was mired in indecision.
In the end, Corbyn did make a reference to the NHS in his New Year speech in Peterborough on January 10, but he failed to commit to the £350m a week figure.
Instead, his speech was dominated by a row over EU migration and conflicting messages and leadership in-fighting about Labour’s stance on “freedom of movement”.
He was also criticised for calling for a “maximum earnings limit”, only to drop the idea hours after first raising it.
Amid the furore, party insiders were more dismayed that Corbyn and McDonnell had failed to agree on the new policy for the NHS.
One source confirmed that the idea was discussed and it was decided ‘not to proceed with this one at this time’. But the decision had “nothing to do” with McDonnell not responding, they added.
Jon Trickett, the former elections campaigns chief for Labour, was understood to be keen on the idea as a way of starting 2017 with a big idea that would galvanise Corbyn’s party membership while appealing to voters across the spectrum.
Corbyn did pledge in his speech to end the under-funding of healthcare, but he only said: “We will give the NHS the funding it needs. The British people voted to refinance the NHS – and we will deliver it.”
The lack of specifics still dogs the party today, and “giving the NHS what it needs” is the only ‘line-to-take’ that MPs are allowed to deploy. Reversing cuts to corporation tax are part of the policy to provide some of the undefined funds.
When asked by the Guardian in an interview this month how much money should be given to the NHS, McDonnell replied: “What they need, what they need.”
McDonnell, who called for £12bn in higher than expected tax revenues to go on health, has pushed the idea of the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) stepping in to assess exactly what the NHS does need in extra annual funding.
He has also backed “hypothecated” tax for the NHS and social care - a specially earmarked levy to fund healthcare - although Corbyn has said he is “not generally in favour of hypothecated taxation”.
Some in the party still hope that the £350m a year pledge can still be made before the next general election, though others believe the emphasis should be on proving that the Vote Leave figure has been discredited and should not be copied.
NHS chief executive Simon Stevens is reported to have warned David Cameron and George Osborne that he needed an extra £16bn a year up to 2020.
No.10’s reaction was “You’ve got to be joking”, former Lib Dem minister David Laws claimed in his memoirs.
Instead, the last Tory government pledged £10bn a year extra, but Jeremy Hunt has since admitted accounting changes mean it is getting £8bn instead.
Stevens was scathing in January when he ridiculed the PM’s claim that the NHS was receiving “more” money than it wanted.
“Like every part of the public service, we got less than we asked for,” Steven said, adding that in 2018/19 spending per head on the NHS is set to go down, not up.
The Vote Leave bus boasted “We send the EU £350m a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead”.
Its campaign director Dominic Cummings has since said the pledge was crucial to winning the EU referendum by a narrow margin.
He wrote: “If Boris, [Michael] Gove, and Gisela [Stuart] had not supported us and picked up the baseball bat marked ‘Turkey/NHS/£350 million’ with five weeks to go, then 650,000 votes might have been lost.”
The Change Britain campaign has since abandoned the claim, and Nigel Farage has said the pledge was “a mistake”.
When tackled on the £350m a week claim, Johnson has since said that “substantial” funds would be directed to the NHS. Other former Vote Leave campaigners have suggested that the net EU savings figure of £100m should be promised to the health service.
Philip Hammond’s Budget U-turn on £2bn in National Insurance rises for the self-employed followed pressure from Downing Street to come up with new money for health and social care.
The Treasury has until the Autumn to find the shortfall and Labour MPs believe that Corbyn can still outflank the Government if it commits to the £350m a year figure.