Exclusive: Tories Pulled Back From Legislating To Protect NHS In US Trade Talks

Government decided against changing the law after it concluded voters did not believe Jeremy Corbyn's election claims.

The Tories considered changing the law to ensure the NHS was kept out of post-Brexit UK-US trade talks but pulled back, HuffPost UK has learnt.

A Conservative insider said the party chose not to legislate because voters simply do not believe Jeremy Corbyn’s “wild conspiracy theories” about a trade deal with the US.

Boris Johnson and his cabinet have also repeatedly made clear that the NHS will be kept out of trade negotiations with Donald Trump and the Tory manifesto states that drug prices and NHS services “will not be on the table”.

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Trade experts have however warned that it is near-impossible to keep the health service out of talks and a Channel 4 Dispatches investigation has found that the price the NHS pays for US medicines has already been discussed by officials.

It has persuaded Corbyn to make it a central issue in his election campaign, repeatedly attacking Johnson for preparing to “sell out” the health service to the US.

But a HuffPost UK/Edelman focus group of floating voters earlier this month simply did not believe the Labour leader’s claims, instead backing the Tories to protect the NHS.

The Tories also found similar attitudes in their conversations with voters in the run-up to the election and so decided against legislating on the issue, HuffPost UK understands.

A Conservative insider said: “Labour’s lies on the NHS haven’t been cutting through - people just don’t believe their wild conspiracy theories.

“Corbyn is desperately trying to distract from his confused position on Brexit, but the public simply aren’t buying it.”

Earlier this year, Trump said the NHS was “on the table” in trade talks before quickly reversing his position following an outcry in the UK.

But the argument is rumbling on because a statement of negotiating objectives from the US department of trade demands “full market access” for American drugs and medical devices in the UK.

If Britain agreed this would upend the current system in which the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) determines the price of drugs by looking at how much they improve life, before setting a figure for US drug companies.

Labour has seized on analysis which says this could mean £500m extra a week charged to the NHS, and highlighted the Dispatches investigation.

Trade expert David Henig said it would be impossible to change the law to keep the NHS out of trade talks.

The director of the European Centre For International Political Economy told HuffPost UK: “You can legislate as you like, but that doesn’t mean the NHS won’t be covered by trade deals.

“It would just mean you’d need new legislation to overturn that.

“The only thing close to a guarantee would be a proper statement saying exactly what will and will not be acceptable for the NHS in trade talks - i.e. we will not make any commitments at all on medicine pricing or procurement, or we will make commitments in these areas.

“The devil is completely in the detail.”

Henig also suggested Britain could be at a disadvantage in trade talks with the US as it will be a smaller country trying to make up for lost potential UK-EU trade.

“Everything that can be traded is on the table at the start of trade talks, especially if you are a smaller country wanting a deal with a bigger one and if the other side is interested in it.

“The Conservatives have made no commitments to transparency in trade agreements.”

Professor Catherine Barnard, senior fellow of The UK in a Changing Europe, said MPs could legislate to tie the government’s hands on the trade deal.

“It would be theoretically possible for the UK to legislate and thus tie the hands of the government in negotiating. In the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill the minister must make a statement on the objectives of the future relationship with the EU.”


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