Theresa May has refused to rule out the NHS being included in a post-Brexit trade deal with the US, prompting a backlash.
The Prime Minister sidestepped an opportunity to give an “absolute guarantee” American companies will not be handed access to the UK’s healthcare system during trade negotiations.
Her failure to confirm the NHS will not form part of upcoming discussions with Washington sparked immediate accusations she had given Donald Trump the “green light to get his hands” on the country’s hospitals.
The row flared up after Mrs May was quizzed by Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday.
Sir Vince asked: “The Prime Minister knows that one of the key objectives of American trade negotiators in any future deal after Brexit is to secure access for American companies to business in the NHS.
“Can she give an absolute guarantee that in those negotiations the NHS will be excluded from their scope, and can she confirm that in her conversations with President Trump she’s made it absolutely clear to him that the NHS is not for sale?”
In reply, Mrs May said the Government is primarily “looking at what we can do to increase trade between the US and UK already, even before the possibility of any free trade agreement”.
The Prime Minister also told Sir Vince “he doesn’t know” what the US will request “in their requirements for that free trade agreement”.
She added: “We will go into those negotiations to get the best possible deal for the UK.”
After the exchange in the House of Commons, a senior Downing Street source was asked whether Mrs May would rule out including the NHS in any future trade deal with the US.
“What she said is that we are at the outset of these discussions,” they said.
“We are not into the detail of these negotiations.”
The source also highlighted previous debate over the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) deal between the US and the EU, which Britain may have signed if it had remained in the EU.
“When you look at the debate on TTIP, we were very clear from our side that the NHS had specific protections and wouldn’t be included,” the source added.
A spokesman for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn branded Mrs May’s failure to rule out US access to the NHS through a future trade deal as “a matter of great concern”.
“It is clear that the failure to rule out predatory corporate access to our public services and NHS means that that is part of the deal being considered by this Government and this Prime Minister and that can’t be accepted and will not be accepted,” they said.
“We have said from the beginning of the post-referendum debate that any attempt to use Brexit to push Britain into a race to the bottom on standards and regulations is completely unacceptable.
“Clearly, a faction in the Tory leadership is committed to that.
“We can’t accept any arrangement that would allow American corporations or any other country’s corporate sector to cherrypick parts of the NHS or our public services.”
Pro-Remain supporters also criticised the Prime Minister’s comments.
Labour MP Peter Kyle, a leading supporter of the Open Britain campaign, said: “Theresa May just gave Donald Trump the green light to get his hands on our National Health Service.
“Just days after the US President took to Twitter to insult the NHS, the Prime Minister was given a clear opportunity to rule out opening up our health service to private competition from US companies.
“Her clear refusal to do so underlines her weakness in trade negotiations and should concern us all.”
Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas posted on Twitter: “Make no mistake, an extreme Brexit is a profound threat to our health service – and MPs who love the NHS need to oppose the Tory Brexit plans.”
Tory Brexiteers have been putting pressure on Mrs May to ensure a Brexit deal with the EU allows Britain the maximum ability to sign trade deals with non-EU countries, such as the US and Australia, after the UK’s exit from the bloc in 2019.
But the Prime Minister did not raise the row in a telephone call with Mr Trump on Tuesday night.
Following his meeting with Mrs May at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month, Mr Trump claimed upcoming discussions would see “tremendous increases in trade” between the US and UK.