Whilst few would argue Theresa May is a master media manipulator in the mould of Blair or Cameron, she certainly nailed her story management this week when throughout Sunday and Monday the news was led with a story of a bumper funding package for the NHS, giving the cherished health service an extra £20bn a year by 2023 as a “birthday present” to mark its 70th anniversary. Better still, the money is “free” to the taxpayer because it comes from the “Brexit dividend” – that much vaunted £350m a week we’re getting back from the EU.
Whilst the headlines for the PM were pretty good, it didn’t take long for the story to unravel. All but the most hard-core Brexiteer would admit that this “Brexit dividend” does not in fact exist. And, even so, the average funding increase of 3.4% per year is lower than the average rate over the life of the health service. Some birthday present that is.
And with the Brexit dividend not actually existing, in truth this is an unfunded spending commitment out of existing tax pots meaning that suddenly this year’s Budget has suddenly become a very tight one because all the available money has been spent on one thing – however important that one thing might be.
For the credibility of the Government, none of this is great. It is hard to attack Labour’s magic money tree when you’re using one yourself. But most of this cynicism is confined to political circles. As far the public is concerned the NHS got a “birthday present” from the “Brexit dividend”. Based on the success of this spin, we fully await Theresa May giving the education system a bar mitzvah, and the welfare state a retirement do. A new era of public spending by milestone event begins.