Brexit Made Conservatives the Party of Tax-and-Spend

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May announced on Sunday that the country’s crisis-ridden National Health Service will receive an additional 20 billion pounds ($26.5 billion at today’s exchange rate) by 2023.

In normal times, that sort of decision might have followed a public discussion of how much the nation should spend on health care and where the money should come from. But this is the age of Brexit.

Twenty billion pounds is roughly the annual windfall that the pro-Brexit side promised during the 2016 campaign to leave the European Union. Its claim was that leaving would free up required payments into the EU budget for national priorities like the crisis-ridden National Health Service. By that logic, improving U.K. health care would be virtually cost-free.

In truth, much of the new outlay will have to come from taxpayers. And a much-needed bigger debate over the future funding and structure of Britain’s health-care service has been postponed.

The most eye-catching claim made by the Leave campaign during the 2016 Brexit referendum was the suggestion, famously plastered across the campaign’s red battle buses, that the government health program would receive a 350 million pound weekly dividend after Britain leaves the European Union.

The U.K., as many noted at the time, never actually paid that amount; it received a rebate from the EU and funding from Brussels for other areas, such as agricultural support, some of which the U.K. government has pledged to replace. The idea of a Brexit dividend also sat awkwardly with projections that Brexit will cost the U.K. economy, not bolster it.

Still, the Brexit dividend was a highly effective ploy; it’s no exaggeration to say it was instrumental in delivering the Brexit vote. The pledge seemed also to offer the country a way out of making a difficult choice about how best to save a perpetually under-resourced health service. As Institute for Fiscal Studies Director Paul Johnson put it recently:

We are finally coming face to face with one of the biggest choices in a generation. If we are to have a health and social care system which meets our needs and aspiration, we will have to pay a lot more for it over the next 15 years.

There is no question that the NHS needs the money. While Britain’s health system is one of the world’s best


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