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James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

As the Centre for Policy Studies said yesterday, this was an NHS Budget, rather than a Brexit Budget. We’ve heard the headline £20 billion pledge before, but it was confirmed with lots of other healthcare commitments – most notably on mental health. Politically speaking, this is no bad thing. This column has long advocated the Government’s greater focus on healthcare – well before the £20 billion announcement. The Conservatives’ recent struggles on the issue undoubtedly dragged down their ratings. Poor ratings on the NHS were negative in themselves but made it difficult for the Tories to show they care – which dragged them down more broadly.

However, while the Party’s announcements on healthcare should be welcomed, there are signs of slowly growing discontent in the electorate about the nature of Government spending that needs to be addressed. This is the concern that, simply put, there’s far too much waste in the NHS and other public services and that spending without reform is a dangerous luxury. While public concern about waste never really goes away – and arguably has rarely changed the way many people vote – there’s a sense that things are changing and that the Government might need to take action to head off a backlash.

My agency Public First ran a quick pre-Budget poll with Deltapoll to test public attitudes to tax and spend. The most interesting and fundamental question gave people two options about public spending and asked them to say which they preferred: “The Government collects enough in tax to pay for important services like the NHS and education, they just spend it on the wrong things”; or “The Government does not collect enough in tax to pay for important services such as the NHS and education, and they need to raise more”. People chose the first option by a huge margin – by 64 per cent to 27 per cent. Interestingly, there was practically no difference across party lines. Labour voters were just as likely as Conservatives to say the Government secured enough in tax revenue without needing to raise taxes. And practically no difference across age groups.

This is emphatically not to say that the Government should dilute its healthcare spending message. The Government’s pivot was the right thing to do. However, it is to say that the Party should now start looking to temper their spending message with a dose of reality – to make it clear that the NHS effectively needs to earn the right to continued high funding by getting waste and unnecessary spending under control. There is a danger, in not doing so, that the Tories won’t secure the political benefit that they ought to in the months ahead. Clearly, by avoiding Budget tax rises on the general public directly, they will not run into straightforward opposition to higher “NHS taxes”,  but they will nonetheless need to be careful about justifying any tax rises (even on business) through the prism of the needs of the NHS.

This poll isn’t a one-off. Over the last couple of years in groups I’ve run, people have become simultaneously more obsessed about the NHS and more concerned about waste – they want spending and reform. I don’t think that the Party has yet secured the political benefit it deserves from their healthcare spending commitments; it has been too restrained in championing the NHS and its commitment. Now is not the time to shift into reformist language. But the Conservatives need gently to add a “however” to their healthcare narrative.

82 comments for: James Frayne: The new polling which suggests that NHS spending is not enough

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