Betting the House on Health? Can Boris Johnson win public trust when it comes to running the NHS

Robert Ede

Research from MHP has shed light on the impact of recent funding announcements with the public.

When Boris Johnson entered Downing Street in late July, few anticipated the NHS would become one of his priorities. There was a perception that Johnson would see the NHS as a ‘ticked box’, following Theresa May’s five year settlement and the subsequent NHS Long Term Plan.

This was clearly not the case. Johnson and his advisers have attempted diversity the Conservative offer beyond Brexit by placing the NHS (alongside other domestic policies, including policing) at the forefront. The prospect of general election campaign may have been a key motive:  polling over the past two elections found that the health service is the defining domestic policy issue for voters.

As we look to the upcoming general election, MHP wanted to explore how recent funding announcements have landed with the public, and also better understand Labour’s response – which blends populism and radicalism. Our research, launched at a private roundtable meeting during Conservative Party Conference and featured in the national media, has found that:

  • The public has not felt additional spending. Just one in four (24%) think that the NHS is better funded now than before the EU referendum
  • Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn are neck and neck when it comes to public perceptions of who is best at running the NHS. Just one in five (21%) think the Leader of the Opposition is most rusted to run the NHS. This is a striking finding, as Labour historically has made the stewardship of the NHS one of the Party’s defining qualities
  • Bricks and mortar matter. Of all the major new NHS announcements made by the Conservatives from July – September, the £1.8bn for hospital upgrades secured the most public support, and more than 80% of the news coverage (see fig one)
Analysis of online news coverage of UK Government NHS policy announcements (July – September, not including Conservative Party Conference).

How is Labour responding?

Labour’s own conference in Brighton included a range of significant announcements, with some eye-catching pledges from Jonathan Ashworth including boosting the NHS’ green credentials by planting one million trees on the NHS estate and banning prescription charges in England – and in doing so bringing it into line with Scotland and Wales. Both of these represent good ‘retail’ policies – easily understood and easy to implement.  Our analysis of the coverage in both conventional and social media would substantiate this – with decent spikes in coverage for both (see fig two: red and purple).

The public response to the more radical Labour Party proposals – introducing new controls around the development, manufacturing and sale of medicines in the UK – has been intriguing.  Our analysis found these have achieved limited impact online, with social media perhaps preoccupied by the macropolitical Brexit crisis (see fig two and three: yellow).  But subsequent MHP polling following Corbyn’s speech has found a high degree of public support – even among non-Labour voters.  Nearly two thirds (61%) of Conservative voters were in favour of using Crown Licencing to enable other manufacturing companies to produce a generic variant of a branded medicine within patent – a truly surprising result.

Whilst this may feel like a vindication of Corbyn’s speech, the reality is more complicated. As set out in a level-headed analysis by The Association of British Pharmaceutical Industry, implementing several of the recommendations in the Medicines for the Many report would be challenging and could ultimately damage patient outcomes.  So how should the industry respond? Caution will be needed.  Setting out the value of a vibrant UK life sciences sector has not always been straightforward and trying to justify its own existence amid the unpredictability of an election campaign will carry as much risk as reward.

With an election now seemingly inevitable, many in the healthcare sector will be considering how the NHS and those who work in it could feature in the campaign. MHP’s expert team is available to guide you through the contest to come and help make sense of the outcome once all votes have been cast.


Online media coverage of Labour Party Health Policies
Social media coverage of Labour Party Health Policies

Robert Ede is an Account Director within the MHP Health team. Notes: The MHP research been covered in both national (Mail on Sunday) and trade (Pharmaphorum) media.

Betting the House on Health - Polling briefing