When Theresa May called for a general election in 2017, it was quite clear to everyone that this would be a general election all about Brexit. Yes, the manifestos covered other issues, but the focus was about the sort of deal that May or Corbyn could get. Two years on, Parliamentary deadlock over Brexit has once again meant that a general election has been called. But is this general election also a Brexit general election, or have voters’ priorities changed?
The answer is not as simple as one might think. Whilst polling data two weeks ago by polling firms Ipsos Mori and Reform suggested that Brexit was the most important issue to voters, new polling data released last week by Ipsos Mori suggests that it is in fact the NHS which is now the most important issue on voters’ minds. Brexit has been in the news for years now, and appears to be the only thing parliament seems willing to discuss, so why has the NHS suddenly crept forward into the public consciousness?
The answer to that question can be found in documents which Jeremy Corbyn presented at the first leadership debate last week. In these documents, Corbyn claimed that there was irrefutable evidence that Boris Johnson and the Conservative party planned to put the NHS up on the negotiating table to get a free trade deal with the US. Naturally, Boris Johnson denied this accusation and continues to deny the accusation, and yet it refuses to go away.
The leaked documents themselves show that between July, 2017 and July, 2019 trade talks between the US and the UK did indeed cover the NHS, alongside other medical matters such as drug pricing and patents. The documents go on to suggest that trade officials and pharmaceutical interests from the US want the British government to dismantle safeguards that protect the NHS from having to pay higher prices for drugs. If the government did this, it is believed that the regulatory body Nice which decides what drugs are available for patients’ consumption, would be limited in its scope and unable to effectively carry out its task, thus potentially weakening the effectiveness of the NHS.
All of this paints a rather bleak picture of what a Conservative government might actually do if given a workable majority in the House of Commons. A recent YouGov poll showed that 87% of the British public are proud of the NHS; it would be sensible to assume that voters would respond poorly to a weakening of the NHS, which is what the leaked documents suggest would happen. Combined with the poor reputation that the US healthcare system seems to have within the UK, it is understandable that voters may be increasingly concerned about a conservative government giving ground on drug safeguards for a US free trade agreement.
It should be noted, however, that in the poll Brexit still came a resounding second with 56% of respondents stating that Brexit was the most important issue to them in this upcoming election. This should surprise nobody. It would be naïve to think that it would be forgotten amongst the noise of claims that the ‘NHS is on the table.’
Brexit has been shown to be especially important for voters who are most likely to vote for the Conservative party, Brexit Party or Lib Dems according to an Ipsos Mori poll, with 73%, 56% and 51% of Brexit Party, Conservative and Lib Dem voters each respectively saying that Brexit was the most important electoral issue to them. An unsurprising statistic given that these three parties have the clearest positions on Brexit, be it a hard Brexit, a deal or a revoke and remain view. Labour on the other hand sees only 21% of their voters viewing Brexit as the most important issue, whilst 28% viewed the NHS as the most important issue per the Ipsos Mori poll. This is unsurprising given the Labour party’s muddling Brexit position.
Ultimately, with the leaked documents from UK-US trade negotiations now out in the open, the NHS will dominate public feeling for some time and might even remain the most pressing issue as Britain heads to the polls on December 12th. It is after all so entwined with British identity that to think of it as being used as a bartering tool is inconceivable. Yet Brexit will remain lurking in the background until it too is dealt with.