Theresa May has refused to rule out offering up the NHS to American companies as part of a post-Brexit trade deal with the US.
The Prime Minister was asked in the Commons if she could give an “absolute guarantee” the health service would not be on the table in future trade negotiations with Washington.
May did not make a promise in her answers, and a Downing Street spokesman later said the Government does not have an “existing position” on whether to allow US companies to run parts of the NHS.
The Prime Minister’s refusal to protect the NHS from American businesses comes days after a Twitter row between US President Donald Trump and UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt - with Hunt correcting Trump’s suggestion people took to streets in London on Saturday to protest at the NHS’s promise of universal healthcare.
In Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday afternoon, Lib Dem leader Sir Vince Cable said: “The Prime Minister knows that one of the key objectives of American trade negotiators in any future deal, after Brexit, is to secure access for American companies to business in the NHS.
“Can she give an absolute guarantee that in those negotiations the NHS will be excluded from their scope, and can she confirm that in her conversations with President Trump she’s made it absolutely clear the him that the NHS is not for sale?”
May replied: “We are starting the discussions with the American administration, first of all looking at what we can do to increase trade between the US and the United Kingdom already, even before the possibility of any free trade agreement.
“He doesn’t know what they’re going to say in their requirements for that free trade agreement. We will go into those negotiations to get the best possible deal for the United Kingdom.”
A Downing Street spokesman later added: “We do not yet have an existing position on a trade deal that is yet to be negotiated.
“We are at the outset of those discussions.”
The spokesman went on to say that during the EU/UK trade deal negotiations, the British Government was “very clear” that “the NHS had specific protections and in effect wouldn’t be included.”
Update: In a press briefing three hours after PMQs ended, the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman flagged up an answer May had given on February 1 2017, when Corbyn had asked her the same question. “A simple and straightforward reply is what is required: the NHS is not for sale and it never will be,” said May.
The spokesman added:
“Any trade deal would ensure that decisions about public services continue to be made by UK governments and not trade partners. The UK’s public health sector is protected by specific exceptions and reservations in all EU trade agreements and as we leave the EU the UK will continue to ensure that rigorous protections for the NHS are included in all trade agreements it is party to.”
A senior spokesman for Jeremy Corbyn told HuffPost: “The kind of relationship that parts of the Tory party want to see in a race to the bottom on standards and regulations as part of a post-Brexit deal is a threat to our National Health Service and we cannot accept that.
“It’s clear that the failure to rule out the kind of predatory corporate access our public services and the National Health Service means that that is part of the deal that is being considered by this Government and this Prime Minister.“
Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, also joined in the attack on May’s stance, and demanded the Prime Minister to “immediately make clear that our NHS is not up for sale.”
Labour MP Peter Kyle, backer of the anti-Brexit Open Britain campaign, said: “Theresa May just gave Donald Trump the green light to get his hands on our National Health Service.
“Just days after the US President took to Twitter to insult the NHS, the Prime Minister was given a clear opportunity to rule out opening up our health service to private competition from US companies.
“Her clear refusal to do so underlines her weakness in trade negotiations and should concern us all.”