Theresa May slapped down Boris Johnson in Cabinet today over a string of newspaper stories setting out how the Foreign Secretary is demanding she run the NHS.
The Prime Minister and other members of her top team were said to have made clear, as Mr Johnson listened, that policy discussions should take place behind closed doors.
After “allies” of the Foreign Secretary briefed papers that Mr Johnson wants Ms May to hand the NHS an extra £5bn in funding paid for from a so-called “Brexit dividend”, the Prime Minister dealt with the issue head-on at the weekly cabinet meeting.
Mr Johnson himself had used an interview last week to reignite the row over Brexit and NHS funding, arguing that the notorious claim that Brexit would deliver an extra £350m-a-week to the NHS should have gone further and promised a higher figure.
But asked on Tuesday whether the PM thought it helpful that Mr Johnson was airing his views in public, her spokesman said: “I would say, broadly, the Prime Minister and a large number of cabinet ministers made the point that cabinet discussions should take place in private.”
Ministers listened as Ms May set out how the NHS had already been given an extra £6bn in the budget, adding that this reflected the Government’s view that the health service is one of her “top priorities”.
Her spokesman went on: “As regards to the future and how any return from the EU contribution would be spent, the Prime Minister reminded Cabinet that the Government has consistently said that we will spend money on our priorities, such as housing, schools and the NHS.
“There will also be other calls on that money, but we will discuss those priorities at the time.”
Mr Johnson has been determined to press the case that cash coming back from Europe should go to the NHS, believing that voters could feel betrayed if the health service does not benefit from Brexit.
But the heath service does not remotely come under his remit and his repeated public pronouncements on areas that stretch the boundaries of his Foreign Office brief have deeply irritated cabinet colleagues.
Asked about the Foreign Secretary’s interventions on health spending, Chancellor Philip Hammond said: “Mr Johnson is the Foreign Secretary.
“I gave the Health Secretary an extra £6bn at the recent budget and we will look at departmental allocations again at the spending review when that takes place.”
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Cabinet ministers in Tuesday’s meeting also then listened to a briefing on the NHS from Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, in which they were told the health service had been placed under significant pressure by the flu outbreak, with admissions double that seen in the highest week in 2010-11 during the swine flu epidemic.
Mr Hunt said staff members are doing an “excellent job” in treating patients, and that improvements to the 111 NHS helpline had meant 2.3 million people were diverted away from A&Es, while an extra million people were given flu vaccines this year.
The NHS has been thrust to the top of the political agenda during the winter health crisis, with Tory MPs branding the Government’s response a “disappointment” and lacking “ambition”, and others calling for cross-party working to solve its problems.