Freaky Friday

Tories and Labour become each other

“MORE! MORE!” After 18 months of virus-enforced silence, Conservative MPs were finally getting the chance to have a big shouty Prime Minister’s Questions. How happy they were. What noises they made.

“OOOOOooooooay!” they yelled in hilarity, when Keir Starmer suggested he had a plan to pay for social care. “Yeyeyeyeyeyeyeah,” they murmured when Boris Johnson quoted the Institute for Fiscal Studies. “AHAAAAAAA!” they cried when the prime minister revealed that a Labour frontbencher had once backed a dedicated tax increase, a reaction that would have been more appropriate for Sherlock Holmes unmasking Mrs Hudson as Moriarty.

After the year we’ve all had, it’s nice to see people having fun. And following some decidedly iffy performances lately, the prime minister was on entertaining form.

But if Tory MPs enjoy the Boris show, there continue to be hints of uneasiness about the prime minister’s more serious incarnation, what we might as well call “Johnson”. Conservatives know that Boris is great at bashing Labour and ignoring questions he doesn’t like, but it’s Johnson who is in charge of making sure that at the next election there aren’t still huge hospital waiting lists. Boris can sell a tax rise, but can Johnson ensure that social care works properly in return?

Rachel Reeves, a woman who never met a detail she didn’t like, was in her element

There do turn out to be all sorts of pesky details involved in this stuff, as we learned in the subsequent debate on our exciting new tax, the Social Care Levy. The Shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves, a woman who never met a detail she didn’t like, was in her element. The government plan would tax the wrong people, she said, and wouldn’t protect older people from having to sell their homes. It didn’t actually provide the necessary money for social care.

It was a punchy performance. The first Tory to attempt a tackle was Paul Holmes. “I remind her that the Conservative party won on the basis of its election manifesto,” he began. “That sums it up,” she replied. “You went into the election with a set of promises, and now you are breaking them one by one.”

We had the Shadow Chancellor, but where was the Chancellor? We’re getting a tax rise as large as those in many Budgets, but Rishi Sunak has yet to address the Commons.

In his place we had Jesse Norman. “The government have acknowledged that this policy involves a breach of the manifesto,” he said. “They have done so directly, they have done so plainly, and they have done so honestly.” It tells you a lot about this government that ministers think they deserve extra credit when they’ve told the truth.

Boris’s White Paper is taking on the air of a postal order from Billy Bunter’s uncle

Overall, the debate had a topsy-turvy quality. Everywhere we looked, Conservatives were telling us about the virtues of raising taxes to pay for the NHS, and Labour MPs were warning of the deadening effects of taxation on the economy. As they charge towards the centre ground, the two parties seem to have swapped places.

Tory MPs would assure us they were, in spirit, low-tax Conservatives. Just not, it turned out, yet. There were few rebels, but again that undertone of unease: Jake Berry made more or less the same points about the problems with the policy as Reeves had. It was the Johnson problem: will this actually work?

Boris promises that Johnson will deliver all the answers in his “forthcoming White Paper”, a document that is taking on the air of a postal order from Billy Bunter’s uncle.

The difficulty Labour had, as was repeatedly pointed out to them, is that they’re very vague on how they would approach this issue. Tory Steve Baker tried to help. Labour, he said, would probably end up concluding they needed to do something very similar. Government ministers nodded in sage agreement. For once the eternal rebel seemed to be on their side. “And that is the problem,” Baker continued, gesturing to his fellow Tories. “The problem is that we’ve got no better ideas. We keep doing things we hate because we feel we must.”

Later, the prime minister addressed Tory MPs in private and assured them that they were still a low tax party. Boris can sell that stuff to them. Their worry is Johnson.

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