A little over 24 hours after Boris Johnson stood in the Commons Chamber and defended the NHS surcharge remaining in place for overseas NHS and social care workers, the Prime Minister performed a U-turn. A No. 10 spokesperson has confirmed this afternoon that Johnson has asked the Home Office and Department for Health to exempt healthcare workers from the NHS surcharge, which is a fee for migrants to use the health service.
This is being chalked up as a win for Sir Keir Starmer – given that it was the Labour leader who challenged Johnson on the issue at Prime Minister's Questions. While it's a coup for the opposition, this is in many ways a victory for the power of the Conservative parliamentary party. Johnson didn't change his mind after the Labour leader's questioning – instead, the change in approach came after a day of Tory backbenchers voicing concerns both publicly and privately. While a few Tory MPs went public to say they would back efforts by Labour to waive the fee for care workers, behind the scenes more and more MPs were getting worked up over it and letting their opinion be known.
No. 10's decision to act so swiftly is in part because this is an issue Johnson already had sympathy for. Downing Street also made a calculation that it was best to move fast rather than allow things to brew in the coming weeks. But the victory by Tory MPs will likely only galvanise them going forward. While the Tory party is united on Brexit, there are a range of issues – Huawei, lockdown and spending – where many have different views than the current Downing Street position.
The Whips have found it difficult to whip a remote party – tricky pieces of legislation have been delayed. Former Brexit Secretary David Davis is causing a particular headache – he is viewed within government as a ringleader for outspoken backbenchers. When MPs return to parliament after the recess, these backbenchers plan to make their voices heard. Today's government U-turn shows that despite Johnson's majority of 80, backbenchers still have the power to change the direction of travel.