The Brexit campaign group backed by the justice secretary, Michael Gove, is trying to persuade senior NHS staff to sign a letter that includes a direct attack on David Cameron, who is accused of having “starved” the health service of funding.
In an email leaked to the Guardian, Vote Leave’s Cleo Watson tells clinicians that her group “desperately needs” doctors, nurses and pharmacists to warn that Britain’s health service is being damaged by the EU.
A draft version of the letter included by Watson says: “David Cameron and Jeremy Hunt must accept responsibility for this – they have starved the NHS of necessary funding for too long.”
She says in the email the letter will be published on Monday to mark the start of a week in which out campaigners will focus on NHS issues such as cost, patient care and safety, immigration and EU directives.
The inclusion of a line directly criticising the Conservative leader has triggered a furious reaction among some of the party’s MPs because Vote Leave has Gove, the London mayor, Boris Johnson, and cabinet ministers Priti Patel and John Whittingdale among senior committee members.
The letter describes the NHS as a great British institution that families rely on. “But as it slips into financial crisis the NHS itself needs some urgent attention. The NHS is being asked to make huge cuts at a time of rising demand. Patients are having to wait longer for treatment, hospital deficits are increasing and doctors are on strike after being told they must take a pay cut,” it adds, claiming that Brexit would hand billions back to the NHS.
A senior source at the Department of Health hit back by claiming the government had provided an additional £10bn for the NHS and said that “every Conservative MP stood on a manifesto to deliver this package”. They added: “So we expect every Conservative MP to have absolutely nothing to do with this letter.”
In an increasingly fierce battle over Britain’s future within the EU, which is causing stark divisions in the Tory party, the source claimed that independent experts said Brexit would cause an “economic shock”.
It follows an article by Hunt that was branded as scaremongering by out campaigners.
Cameron and Gove have tried to maintain a strong relationship throughout the referendum campaign, despite Gove’s decision to campaign vocally for Brexit. Although there are claims that the prime minister has started ignoring ministers campaigning for out, Downing Street sources say the justice secretary is still invited to sessions in which Cameron prepares for prime minister’s questions.
Nick Herbert, chairman of Conservatives In, called on Conservative MPs and ministers to “distance themselves from this wholly unacceptable attack on our party”. “I find it hard to believe that any senior Conservative would want to be associated with direct criticism of the prime minister and our achievements in this crucial area, not least ahead of local elections,” he said.
Meanwhile, David Cameron, who was attending a summit in Washington on Thursday and Friday, said his encounters with other world leaders had underlined the fact they believed Britain’s best interests lay in remaining in the European Union. “What I find is it’s very hard to find a leader of a friendly nation that wishes Britain well, that believes we would be better off outside a reformed EU. I had some brief discussions about this with Prime Minister Modi [of India] last night and we will have further conversations with him today.”
It comes as another leading figure linked to Vote Leave tells the Guardian that he would like to see the entire EU project dissolved.
Nigel Lawson, a former Tory chancellor, said: “Well you could say that once upon a time it served a useful purpose, in confining Germany. You could make that case – and I really bought into this in the 50s. But it’s passed its sell-by date; it’s served its purpose.
“I see no purpose in the European Union now at all. I think that if it ceases to exist we’ll have better relationships.”
Lawson argued there was more “hostility” between European countries now than there had ever been at any time since the war.
“The great majority of people in Europe do not want to be part of a political union.”
Asked about the impact the referendum was having on his party and whether Cameron’s premiership was a price worth paying for Brexit, he said the prime minister had “already said he’s going to stand down”.
But Lawson argued that Cameron had a duty to remain in place with his cabinet in the aftermath of an out vote in order to implement the people’s verdict in the most effective way.
FULL TEXT OF THE LETTER
From: Cleo Watson
Date: 29 March 2016 at 13:36:03 BST
Subject: Urgent call: Doctors
I hope you have had a restful Easter.
Next week is the Vote Leave NHS week, when we will be hitting a number of issues that affect staff and patients, including cost, patient care and safety, immigration, EU Directives and TTIP.
We will be publishing a letter on Monday from respected doctors, nurses, pharmacists and so on and we desperately need you to suggest any clinician contacts that you may have. It would obviously be great to kick off the week with a really strong list to accompany the letter, the draft text of which is below.
If you could forward me the details of any current or retired healthcare workers I would be incredibly grateful.
The NHS is a great British institution that families rely on in times of need. But as it slips into financial crisis the NHS itself needs some urgent attention. The NHS is being asked to make huge cuts at a time of rising demand. Patients are having to wait longer for treatment, hospital deficits are increasing and doctors are on strike after being told they must take a pay cut. David Cameron and Jeremy Hunt must accept responsibility for this – they have starved the NHS of necessary funding for too long.
If we Vote Leave on 23 June we will be able to spend more on our priorities like the NHS. If we put the billions that currently go to EU bureaucrats into the NHS instead it would hugely improve patient care. For example, the £350 million a week we hand to Brussels is similar to the entire yearly Cancer Drugs Fund budget.
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