LONDON — As the U.K. gears up for a general election, health care has taken center stage.
At Prime Ministers Questions on Wednesday, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn launched a focused attack on Boris Johnson over the National Health Service. “The prime ministers planned sellout deal with Donald Trump means yet more NHS money being siphoned off into private profit,” he said.
It was the first direct exchange between Johnson and Corbyn since MPs voted to back an election on Tuesday night. Both leaders took the opportunity to practice their key election messaging.
Despite the vote being pitched by all sides as a chance to unblock Brexit paralysis, it was clear the leaders of both main parties plan on the campaign being about much more than the U.K.s exit from the European Union.
“The U.S. has called for full market access to our NHS — which would mean prices for some of our most important medicines increasing up to sevenfold,” Corbyn said. “Our health service is in more danger than at any other time in its glorious history because of his government, his attitudes and the trade deals he wants to strike.”
Johnson emphasized the Conservatives reputation for economic competence, and accused Corbyn of peddling “economic catastrophe” and “political disaster.” The Labour leader “would ruin this economy and ruin our ability to fund the NHS,” he said.
The prime minister said Labour is planning on “consigning next year, which should be a wonderful year for our country, to two more referendums” — one on Brexit and one on Scottish independence. Corbyn has said that although he opposes the breakup of the U.K., Westminster should not stand in the way of a second referendum in Scotland.
“Despite the prime ministers denials, the NHS is up for grabs by U.S. corporations in a Trump-style U.S. trade deal,” Corbyn said. He said a Labour government offered “a once in a generation chance” of ending privatization and investing more in the health service.
The spat comes off the back of revelations in a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary that U.K. and U.S. trade officials have repeatedly discussed the cost of medicines.
There is concern that the U.S. government and pharmaceutical industry want the NHS to pay more for drugs manufactured across the Atlantic, which are sold much more expensively there. Labour is seeking to capitalize on consistent polling that suggests voters trust it with the NHS much more that they do the Tories.
The Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson said “voters deserve better than a choice between the two tired old parties.”
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