MPs have approved the government’s social care cap in the Commons. But the vote doing so was narrow, and there seem to have been a lot of Conservative MPs either abstaining (which would be a rebellion against a three-line whip) or absent. Some will have been unwell, and ‘slipped’, as it is known, for other reasons. But some may have agreed with the whips that their car was due to break down or a tooth due to need emergency dental work, thus preventing them from voting against this controversial amendment.
One of the things that has annoyed even those sympathetic to the reform is the way it has been snuck into the Health and Care Bill as an amendment. Members of the bill committee complained that they’d spent weeks scrutinising it line-by-line and had found scant reference to social care — only for ministers to bung it in at the last minute. Mel Stride, a Tory backbencher who chairs the Treasury Select Committee, told the chamber this evening that he was unhappy with the timing of the amendment as it meant MPs were not able to examine and understand the detail properly.
Some members chose not to mention it at all, focusing instead on their own pet projects. Others, like Matt Hancock, gave such rousing speeches in its favour that casual observers might have been forgiven for thinking that they were hankering after life on the government benches. But what is clear, both from my private conversations with Conservative MPs and from the result tonight, is that there is waning enthusiasm for Boris Johnson: not just for his policies but also for the way he keeps announcing them. There is a suspicion, too, that there is little point in mounting a passionate defence of a policy because chances are ministers will drop it or dramatically change it anyway.
The overall debate on this stage of the Health and Care Bill resembled most NHS-related debates in the Commons. That is to say that it bore little semblance to reality. Indeed, there were so many conflicting realities on offer that it was hard to tell whether this bill will privatise the NHS, roll back its competition and focus more on integration, give ministers vastly more power or hand more power to private companies, atomise it, centralise it, save it or damage it. Health minister Edward Argar had to spend a portion of his summing up speech explaining why he didn’t think the bill is increasing privatisation of the NHS (something most independent health experts say is not happening in the legislation).
Perhaps it is necessary for politicians to include a rejection of privatisation as part of the liturgy they must read out on the NHS. But it’s also worth noting that when so much political energy is regularly expended on something that isn’t actually happening, the real mistakes in flawed legislation tend to pass into law without anyone noticing.