That is what Tory MPs are asking themselves. According to Andrew Grice in today's Indy, George Osborne is having to fight off pressure from parliamentary colleagues to end the £104.1 billion NHS budget's immunity from cuts. Other departments are being briefed to prepare for cuts of up to 40 per cent and many feel that it is unfair to exempt the health service (don't get them started on DFID). Even Opposition sorts like Andy Burnham, former Health Secretary, are questioning the stance.
The NHS budget pledge must be recognised as a political masterstroke by David Cameron. Ever since he spelled out his priorities as N, H and S, Cameron has tried his utmost to paint the Tories as faithful followers of the NHS creed. The promise that the NHS budget would be ring-fenced meant that health was largely a silent issue during the election as Labour did not have much opportunity to attack on it. There used to be a time that, when canvassing, a door opened by someone in a NHS uniform meant a swift riposte for any Tory candidate. That was not the case this year. I fondly remember knocking on the door of a gaggle of young nurses who couldn't contian their excitement at the chances of Mr Cameron in Number 10.
The pledge must stay. Regrettably, this means massive cuts elsewhere. Or does it? I think that I have the solution. There are a number of programmes in other departments - Sure Start in the DoE for one - that could quite easily be subsumed into the Department of Health's range of responsibilities. The NHS would have to find efficiencies like any other department, although on a smaller scale (like the case for schools and defence) and other departments would be less damagingly hit. Certain schemes could survive.
In so doing, the NHS budget could continue to increase in real terms every year for the duration of this Parliament.