Boris Johnson Demands Millions for NHS. Hammond Is Unimpressed

Updated on
  • U.K.’s top diplomat strays from brief in setting out policy
  • Hammond offers rebuke: ‘Johnson is the foreign secretary’

Medical staff accompany a patient inside the Royal London Hospital.

Photographer: Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

As Theresa May’s Cabinet met Tuesday, Boris Johnson called for the prime minister to boost government spending on the National Health Service. At least one senior U.K. minister is not impressed.

Arriving in Brussels, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond pointedly said: “Mr Johnson is the Foreign Secretary,” adding that the health department recently received an extra 6 billion pounds ($8.4 billion).

The U.K.’s top diplomat has been a constant thorn in May’s side: frequently freelancing on government policy unrelated to his remit, making gaffes and undermining her by laying out his Brexit demands in public.

Johnson is concerned his ruling Conservatives are ceding political ground to the opposition Labour Party over the issue. Cabinet meetings are supposed to be private, with ministers taking collective responsibilty for policies agreed at the weekly meeting. The NHS has faced pressure over the winter with routine operations canceled to make space for emergency cases.

Under Pressure

Britain has fewer nurses relative to its population than most advanced economies

Source: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development

Note: figures relate to 2015 or nearest year

Some Tory lawmakers called for Johnson to be sacked over his reported remarks. Anna Soubry tweeted: “PM shld have sacked #BorisJohnson for longstanding incompetence & disloyalty. Unless TM acts now Boris will bring her down #Godhelpus.” Fellow Conservative Phillip Lee tweeted: “I’ve got lots to say - but now is not the time to say it. I’m getting on with my own job - as should others! #nhs”

In Private, Please

“The prime minister and a number of ministers made the point that cabinet discussions should take place in private,” May’s spokesman, James Slack, told reporters.

Yet Johnson’s intervention -- and the fact that he’s not gone anywhere in spite of the many times he seemed close to getting fired -- draws attention to May’s weakness. May hasn’y sacked Johnson, in part because of his popularity among grass-roots Conservatives.

And as a bonafide Brexit campaigner, she can’t afford politically to dispose of him. Her Cabinet is a delicate balancing act of so-called Leavers -- who voted for Britain to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum -- and the Remainers -- like Hammond, who were against it. Making sure the scales aren’t tipped one way or another is one of May’s many headaches.

Brexit Battlebus

Johnson has recently sought to retake ownership of claims made on the side of the 2016 Brexit campaign battlebus which said the U.K. could spend the 350 million pounds it sends to Brussels a week on the NHS instead.

In an interview with the Guardian on Jan. 15 Johnson said the figure could be even higher -- at 438 million pounds.

At the Cabinet meeting, which lasted an hour and 45 minutes, ministers spent an hour discussion the NHS, Slack said.

“The prime minister and a number of ministers made the point that money would be available to spend on domestic priorities including the NHS," after Brexit, he said.

The main opposition Labour Party went on the attack. “It’s just Boris Johnson playing games, isn’t it? He’s weaponizing the NHS, if you like, for his own internal Tory party games,” Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s health spokesman, told the BBC.

— With assistance by Thomas Penny

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