Peter Hoskin

Has Osborne downgraded the Tories’ commitment to ring-fence health spending?

Has Osborne downgraded the Tories' commitment to ring-fence health spending?
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Osborne's interview with the Guardian is mostly getting coverage for his attack on "unacceptable" banking bonuses.  But I reckon a passage about the Tories' commitment to ring-fence the health budget from spending cuts may be more significant:

"Only health and international development have been ring-fenced – though today, when it comes to health spending, [Osborne] says only that 'we will work hard to protect it'."

This idea of "working hard" to "protect" the health budget is a good deal more ambiguous than the solid pledge to offer real-terms spending increases that we've heard so much over the past couple of days.  As I suggested yesterday, it's also a more sensible position for the Tories to adopt.  A Tory government many find that it needs to cut health spending in order to deal with Brown's debt crisis, and Osborne's new formulation gives them a little more rhetorical leeway to do that.  Who knows?  It may even be the first sign that they're thinking of formally downgrading their health spending pledge.   

The test, now, is whether this becomes the official Tory line on health spending - or whether the whole #welovetheNHS brouhaha has encouraged them to push the ring-fencing commitment even more.  Watch this space.