LONDON (Reuters) - Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn offered on Wednesday what he described as evidence that access to Britain’s state-run health service was being discussed in trade talks with the United States, handing reporters hundreds of pages of documents.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has denied that the National Health Service (NHS) is on the table in talks, but Corbyn said he had copies of leaked documents called “UK-U.S. Trade and Investment Working Group full readout” suggesting otherwise.
The NHS, much loved in Britain, has become a key battleground before a Dec. 12 election, which Johnson called to try to break the deadlock in parliament over the country’s exit from the European Union.
Corbyn may also be keen to shift the narrative away from criticism on Tuesday over what Britain’s chief rabbi said was his failure to stem anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.
The governing Conservatives and Labour are offering very different visions for Britain, but both have pledged more funding for the NHS.
Corbyn, a veteran socialist, told a news conference he had 451 pages of unredacted documents summarising U.K.-U.S. talks and accused Johnson of plotting to sell off the NHS. All the documents are dated from before Johnson took power in July.
“So now we know, direct from the secret reports that they never wanted you to see - the U.S. is demanding that our NHS is on the table in negotiations for a toxic deal, it’s already been talked about in secret,” Corbyn said.
“That could lead to runaway privatisation of our health service. Mega corporations see Johnson’s alliance with (U.S. President Donald) Trump as a chance to make billions from the illness and sickness of people in this country.”
“These uncensored documents leave Boris Johnson’s denials in absolute tatters.”
Johnson said Labour’s claims were a diversionary tactic.
“It’s total nonsense,” he told reporters on the campaign trail. “I can give you an absolute cast-iron guarantee that this is a complete diversion, that the NHS under no circumstances will be on the table for negotiation, for sale.”
Both leaders have made frequent visits to hospitals during the campaign, underlining the importance of healthcare in an election which will show how far traditional political divides have become blurred by Brexit.
More than three years since Britain voted to leave the EU, it is as yet unclear how, when or even whether Brexit will happen. Johnson is offering voters a quick Brexit, while Corbyn says he will get the issue sorted in six months.
The most recent document published by Labour on Wednesday, from a meeting in early July just before Johnson became prime minister, says the U.S. team was clear that the outcome of Britain’s talks with the EU would have an impact.
“There would be all to play for in a no-deal situation but UK commitment to the (European Union’s) Customs Union and Single Market would make a UK-U.S. FTA (free trade agreement) a non-starter,” the document said.
Labour also cited U.S. officials pushing for longer patents on medicines among the things they were alarmed about.
Asked by reporters if he had firm evidence that ministers had agreed the health service should be part of trade talks, Corbyn said: “They sanctioned the talks, they are obviously fully aware of the talks. They are the ones that were declining to make the documents public in the first place.”
Reporting by Kylie MacLellan and Elizabeth Piper, editing by William James and Gareth Jones