“A plan beats no plan,” Boris Johnson told the House of Commons, several times, as he explained that expensive things had to be paid for and difficult choices had to be faced. All this prompted several thoughts, chief among them: Who Are You And What Have You Done With Boris Johnson?
There may well be more joy in Heaven over one prime minister who repenteth, and all that, but in the House of Commons there was a certain amount of astonishment at the sight of Johnson explaining that, as it were, one cannot both have one’s cake and eat it. Next week the Sketch is hoping for a lecture on the deep spiritual joys that flow from marital fidelity.
It was a day of breaking promises. Out of the window went the pensions triple lock. Into the bin went the promise not to raise taxes.
In return, we got a plan to pay for social care that was at once specific and vague. Johnson had promised this plan wouldn’t involve anyone having to sell their home, a pledge he declined invitations to repeat.
It was fairly clear there was some sleight of hand going on somewhere. But where? Was the tax rise really to pay for the social care promise, or was the promise a cover for the tax rise to fund the NHS? Maybe it was all a distraction from something else that has yet to be announced.
Johnson, flanked by Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak, promised to raise NHS capacity to “110 percent”. It evoked a scene from The Apprentice, with the sharp-suited Team Thrust explaining to Lord Sugar that while they had lost thousands and burned East London to the ground, their business model was basically sound. Opposite them, on the Labour bench, Team Drudge had the air of people already mentally sitting in a transport café and blaming each other for defeat. Keir should have made sure we had an alternative plan, Lord Sugar. I very specifically delegated that task to Jonathan, Lord Sugar.
Having announced he was breaking one promise, Johnson insisted he was going to keep the next. The money would be, he said “hypothecated in law”, the kind of language that has the Sketch still checking it knows where its wallet is.
The prime minister listed the many intractable problems that confound the NHS and social care sectors. “The plan I am setting out today will fix all of those problems,” he concluded, showing his powers of hyperbolic statement remain undiminished.
Replying for Labour, Keir Starmer struggled at first against the low-level chuntering from the Tory benches. When he accused the prime minister of having “no plan” to fix the NHS backlog, they laughed. Only when he pointed out that Johnson was proposing to increase the tax paid by care workers without increasing their pay did Conservative MPs fall silent. They didn’t have much to say either when he reminded them all they were about to break an election promise.
But the pandemic is proving a great alibi. The pandemic was the reason, Johnson explained, why he was having to raise taxes. Starmer tried to argue that the NHS had looked pretty stretched even before the pandemic, but it was in vain.
We had been promised a furious Tory rebellion, either at the tax rise or the place where the burden was falling, but there was barely a pained whimper.
As Tory MPs pondered aloud why it had taken so long, none seemed to notice that a large part of the answer is “Tory MPs”.
There was a lot from Johnson and others about the failure of previous governments to address the social care problem. One of his great skills is to act as though the noble, wise Conservative government of 2021 is utterly unrelated to the wicked, feckless Conservative governments of 2010 to 2020. Many of his MPs seem to believe this.
One after another they popped us to tell us how brave the prime minister was to grasp the nettle and cut the knot, the most courageous national leader since Thatcher, or Cromwell, or Alfred the Great. Theresa May, who tried to do something very similar only to change course following howls of protest from her MPs, was sadly not in the chamber to offer her thoughts.
Neither were David Cameron and George Osborne, who labelled a Labour attempt to deal with social care a “death tax”. As Tory MPs pondered aloud why it had taken so long to get to this point, none seemed to notice that a large part of the answer is “Tory MPs”.
About the only difficult question came from Sir Christopher Chope: “If there had not been a pandemic, how would we have funded this reform of social care without having to raise taxes?” Johnson flannelled. But in general, for all the muttering behind hands to journalists, there was no sign of a brewing backbench rebellion. Though it was lunchtime, so perhaps they were plotting in the dining room.
Marcus Fysh claimed to know ways of “getting the finance, technology and political sectors together to do this in a way that can be less of a burden on the taxpayer.” Two years ago, you weren’t a Tory MP unless you had a cunning plan to solve a huge government problem using blockchain, but Fysh is out of tune with the times.
We got the new Conservative orthodoxy later at a Team Thrust press conference, in the form of a brief lecture from the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the virtues of increasing taxation to fund improved public services. First question: Who Are You And What Have You Done With Rishi Sunak?
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