May's claim of 'Brexit dividend' for NHS dismissed as 'tosh'

Alan McGuinness, political reporter

A Tory MP has labelled claims a "Brexit dividend" will help fund a cash injection for the NHS as "tosh", with Theresa May's pledge of more money for the health service coming under scrutiny.

The prime minister said the NHS will receive an extra £20bn a year in real terms funding (once inflation is taken into account) by 2024, an average increase of 3.4% every year for the next five years.

But the government's decision to link part of the extra money to the infamous Vote Leave pledge to spend the money Britain sends to European Union on the NHS instead has provoked much comment.

The totemic claim - widely questioned by experts during the 2016 referendum - that we send £350m a week to the EU formed an integral part of the Brexit campaign's clarion call to "take back control" from Brussels.

Mrs May told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show: "Some people may remember seeing a figure on the side of a bus a while back of £350m a week in cash.

"Well, I can tell you what I am announcing will mean that in 2023-24, there will be about £600m a week in cash, more in cash, going into the NHS."

While many have welcomed news of the extra money, critics - including some within the PM's own party - poured scorn on the "Brexit dividend" characterisation, saying there was no such thing.

They argue the economic damage of leaving the EU will far outweigh any money we save in payments to Brussels.

One Tory MP was particularly scathing in her assessment, labelling the claim "tosh".

Sarah Wollaston, who is chair of the health and social care select committee and a former GP, said it "treats the public as fools".

She added: "Sad to see Govt slide to populist arguments rather than evidence on such an important issue.

"This will make it harder to have a rational debate about the 'who & how' of funding & sharing this fairly."

A fiscal watchdog also dismissed the term.

Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, told Sky News: "There is not something called a 'Brexit dividend' to pay for it.

"In the short run, arithmetically there isn't because we're going to continue giving money to the EU and spending money on farmers and so on through to 2023 - there's literally no money there.

"In the longer run, the government has accepted that the economy will be smaller and tax revenues will be lower as a result of Brexit."

Labour's shadow housing secretary John Healey told Sky's Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme: "Claiming some bogus Brexit dividend is clearly something that doesn't exist - and she's only saying that because she's got her arm twisted up her back by her Cabinet Brexit hardliners."

There have also been calls for more details on how the pledge will be paid for.

Labour's John McDonnell said it was "nowhere near good enough".

"This falls far short of the 4% that experts say the NHS needs, it is just a standstill, and the Tories are refusing to say where the money will come from," the shadow chancellor said.

When Mrs May was asked where the non-"Brexit dividend" element of the funding would come from, she told the BBC: "As a country we will be contributing more, a bit more, but also we will have that sum of money that is available from the European Union."

The PM has promised that Chancellor Philip Hammond will set out more details "in due course", but it is expected taxpayers will be asked to contribute more and/or there will be extra government borrowing.

According to Mr Johnson, the government has room to manoeuvre on taxes.

For example, reversing planned cuts in corporation tax would save £5-£6bn, while adding 1p on income tax would raise a similar amount.

But he cautioned: "You can make these numbers add up with a few changes here and there - none of them are going to be super popular."