Donald Trump on Tuesday laid down the battle lines for negotiations on a future US-UK trade deal, insisting that a “phenomenal” agreement was possible but only if Britain’s National Health Service was part of the talks.
The US president, on the second day of a UK state visit, claimed that transatlantic trade between the two countries could be “two and even three times what we’re doing now” after Brexit, but made it clear that it would involve painful choices for Britain.
“Everything will be on the table — the NHS, everything,” Mr Trump said at a joint conference with UK prime minister Theresa May, as he looked ahead to a post-Brexit trade agreement.
The idea of opening up the taxpayer-funded NHS to more US medical companies — the health service already buys in some capabilities from the private sector, including US groups — is highly controversial in Britain.
A trade deal with the US could also potentially involve the NHS having to pay higher prices for drugs made by American companies. The NHS currently pays significantly less for medicines from US companies than American healthcare purchasers.
Mr Trump’s comments prompted immediate denunciation from health secretary Matt Hancock, a contender to succeed Mrs May as prime minister, who tweeted: “Dear Mr President. The NHS isn’t on the table in trade talks — and never will be. Not on my watch.”
Lord Lawson, the former Conservative chancellor, once said the NHS was “the closest thing the English people have to a religion”.
Downing Street said Mrs May shared Mr Hancock’s views, which are widely shared across the political spectrum.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that Eurosceptic Conservatives, vying to become Tory leader and implement Brexit, would embark on a policy of “disaster capitalism” once they had weakened links with the EU. “They all need to understand: our NHS is not for sale,” he added.
The problem facing the Tory MPs seeking to succeed Mrs May — especially those willing to oversee a no-deal Brexit — is that a major US trade deal would be the single largest way of offsetting some of the lost commerce with the EU after Brexit.
In 2017 the US accounted for 18 per cent of UK exports and 11 per cent of its imports, while the EU represented 45 per cent and 53 per cent respectively.
But Washington will demand big concessions, insisting the NHS be opened up to more American companies and that the UK accept US food products such as hormone-treated beef and chlorine-dipped chicken, both currently banned under EU rules.
Downing Street said this week that Britain would not accept any lowering of food or environmental standards when it leaves the EU, creating a further major barrier to a transatlantic trade deal.
Mr Trump struck a generally emollient tone with Mrs May having previously criticised her Brexit negotiations, notably by holding out an olive branch on the vexed issue of Huawei, the Chinese telecoms equipment maker.
The UK National Security Council, chaired by Mrs May, tentatively agreed in April to let Huawei build parts of Britain’s fifth-generation mobile phone networks.
But a final decision by the government has been put on hold and is not expected to be taken until after the prime minister leaves office next month.
Washington is concerned that Huawei’s equipment could enable spying by Beijing, and Mr Trump suggested he had been reassured by a promise that the final decision was subject to a “rigorous review” in Whitehall and that British security chiefs would ensure that any participation by the Chinese company in 5G networks did not compromise intelligence sharing between the US and the UK.
Asked if he would limit the sharing of US secrets with its closest ally, Mr Trump said: “No, because we are going to have absolutely an agreement on Huawei and everything else.
“We have an incredible intelligence relationship and we will be able to work out any differences.”
Washington has barred use of Huawei’s 5G equipment in the US, and is pressing allies to do likewise.
Mr Trump meanwhile used a meeting with US and UK business leaders to raise the importance of close co-operation between the two countries on regulation of key industries, including financial technology, given rising competition from China.
Executives from Goldman Sachs, National Grid, Reckitt Benckiser, Bechtel, BAE Systems, GlaxoSmithKline, JPMorgan and Barclays attended the meeting.
Several companies, including GSK, raised the importance of investment in research and development.
Roger Carr, BAE chair, described it as an “excellent meeting”, adding that “the atmospherics and dynamics were first-class”.