Boris Johnson has just announced his plans to increase National Insurance by 1.25 per cent for both workers and employers to fund extra spending on the NHS and social care. Johnson framed the measure as necessary to deal with the backlog that had built up during Covid. He claimed that without action hospital waiting lists would reach 13 million. He said that he didn’t break his manifesto promise lightly but that a ‘global pandemic was in no one’s manifesto’.
Of course, the problem with this argument is that the tax promise, as well as the commitment that no one would have to sell their house to pay for social care, were always going to be incompatible.
Keir Starmer’s response started with a decent joke about how he had as much notice of the Prime Minister’s statement as the Cabinet; it is another sign of how Cabinet government is a fiction these days that ministers were formally told about the proposals this morning.
Yet Labour is still hedging about how it would fund extra resources for the NHS. Starmer did, though, astutely ask Johnson if he could guarantee that the NHS backlog would be cleared by the end of this parliament. The danger for Johnson is that what he is announcing today ends up falling between two stools: he damages the Tories’ credibility on tax without managing to get on top of the NHS backlog.
What should please Number 10 is that there was virtually no Tory opposition to what Johnson was saying. Rob Halfon did ask about what ‘mitigations’ could be put in place for low-paid workers and Damian Green did, pertinently, ask how Johnson was going to ensure that extra money did reach social care rather than just being swallowed up by the NHS. But there was little more than that, which suggests that any rebellion on the policy will be pretty limited.
The decision to hike National Insurance marks a new phase in Johnson’s premiership. The period of emergency Covid spending funded by borrowing is coming to an end. It will be replaced by a grim focus on dealing with the legacy of the crisis. The crucial question now is what will Johnson get for his tax rise, and whether it will be enough to persuade voters that it was worth paying for.