The chancellor’s recent speech with incorrect numbers about the funding boost to the NHS damages public perception at a time when trust in politics is low, says Andy Cowper

According to professor of politics Philip Cowley, former US president Lyndon Baines Johnson said that “the first rule of politics is to be able to count”.

Has chancellor Phillip Hammond fallen foul of this rule? Judging by his speech to last week’s Conservative Party conference, it would seem so.

Spreadsheet Phil may need a new nickname after this.

Sum confusion

Chancellor Philip Hammond’s speech featured an error in his speech, telling those present or watching that “we’ve announced an unprecedented £84bn real terms funding boost for the NHS”.

Oh dear. The prime minister announced a £20.5bn increase by 2023 back in June. The NHS budget is currently about £114bn. 

An £84bn real terms funding boost would represent an increase in the NHS budget by just under 75 per cent.

To put it mildly, that is not what is going to happen.

Why did “Spreadsheet Phil” read out this obviously and epically incorrect figure? That feels like the sort of question someone like me should ask. So, I did. Sadly, I don’t have an answer for you.

Having asked the press office of the Conservative Party, they told me to ask the Department of Health and Social Care. Having asked the Department of Health and Social Care’s press office, they asked me to ask the Treasury press office. That was on Thursday: at the time of writing this (Sunday), I have no answer.

It does not really indicate that the Treasury is taking the NHS funding entirely seriously.

The misleading announcement of a Very Big Number is not a new trick from the Treasury. Gordon Brown was more than once culpable of multiplying funding boost announcements when he was chancellor.

Does it matter? I think so. At a time when trust in politics is low, using misleading or inaccurate numbers in this way compounds the problems of public perception.

The new(ish) health secretary and technology enthusiast Matt Hancock, contrastingly, got the numbers right in his speech, noting that “The prime minister has committed an extra £20bn over the next five years”.

Mrs May commits news

And the prime minister herself committed an act of news, by revealing to the conference that the fuel duty escalator was going to remain frozen. (An early and ironic tribute to the certainty of a tough NHS winter, perhaps?)

This matters, because seasoned observers of the Treasury Munchkin community have been speculating that a rise in fuel duty might be the least worst way to present a Conservative tax rise, with a green-ish halo of virtue. The sin of driving is not to take the strain. This will mean that if Spreadsheet Phil regains his ability to add up correctly, then income tax is almost certain to have to rise.

(An interesting question, given the Conservative Party’s and government’s internal schism over Brexit and DUP majority is whether they could get a tax rise through the Commons.)

Winter also matters because it is the peak period for flu, which will compound the extant strain on urgent and emergency care. I am hearing disturbing reports from several GPs that the supply of the flu vaccine is not flowing to practices as it needs to.

It would be interesting to get readers’ views on whether these anecdotal reports from some locations are fairly widespread (and the cause of the shortages, if known). This winter is going to be bad anyway: problems with supply of flu vaccines are a headache without which the health and social care system could most certainly do.