The biggest problems facing Boris Johnson as Parliament returns
Threat of backbench revolt looming over the PM following summer recess
Boris Johnson is set to risk a Tory rebellion by pushing ahead with plans for a tax hike to fund social care, according to insiders.
As Parliament reconvenes today, the prime minister is in “invincible mode” and intends to ignore rising backbench discontent over his proposed manifesto-breaking increase to National Insurance, a Treasury source told The Times.
The row is one a series of plans likely to put Johnson on a “collision course” with his cabinet and Tory MPs as he strives “to reset his premiership with a series of manifesto-breaking policy announcements”, said Politico London Playbook’s Alex Wickham. The PM will be hoping that “the UK has now seen the worst of the pandemic and that the government can now begin to wade through the mammoth in-tray of problems that have piled up over the past 18 months”, Wickham added.
But Johnson faces a major challenge in tackling the list of issues clogging up his inbox.
“Several” cabinet ministers “are known to oppose the plans” to raise National Insurance contributions (NICs) to increase health and social care spending, according to The Times. The Treasury source said that Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s “team has proposed a series of cheaper alternatives, but none works for the PM”.
However, “cabinet ministers opposed to a rise in national insurance said that they would not fight the plans”, the paper reported. A government source said that “it’s welcome to hear there is some form of resistance in cabinet, but the way it seems to work is they’re told what’s happening and that’s it. It’ll be a fait accompli.”
Whether the Conservative backbench will back the PM remains to be seen, however. The Guardian said last week that the leaking of the policy had triggered “chaos” in No. 10, with MPs including Jeremy Hunt and John Redwood immediately going “public with their concerns”.
Labour has also come out swinging against the plan. Keir Starmer told the Daily Mirror that “we do need more investment in the NHS and social care, but National Insurance, this way of doing it, simply hits low earners, it hits young people and it hits businesses”.
“We don't agree that is the appropriate way to do it,” he continued. “Do we accept that we need more investment? Yes, we do. Do we accept that NI is the right way to do it? No, we don't.”
Another Tory manifesto promise may also be abandoned as early as tomorrow, with Sunak expected to announce the ditching of the pledge that the state pension will increase in line with whichever is highest out of inflation, earnings or 2.5%.
The so-called pensions “triple lock” has cost the taxpayer “billions” during the pandemic, said Politico’s Wickham. Wages have risen by as much as 8% owing to what Wickham described as “coronavirus distortions”, resulting in a windfall for the retired.
The Daily Mail reported that pensioners will “lose a £16-a-month boost” if the government goes ahead with the pensions plan as part of the “bonfire of pledges”.
NHS waiting list
After 18 months of Covid-19 chaos, health chiefs are warning that the NHS is under the greatest pressure in its history, with the number of patients on waiting lists in England hitting a record 5.45 million in August.
An unnamed Tory MP told Politico that “the NHS is at breaking point”, adding: “Millions of people are going to find that surgeries that should be booked for a few weeks’ time are now taking months or years.”
As the global pandemic continues, “much of the No. 10’s autumn reset will inevitably depend on Covid cases and the impact on the NHS”, said Sky News political editor Beth Rigby.
Johnson is “determined to get back to business as usual”, she continued. “Learning to live with Covid” is “top of the to-do list”, as officials draw up a winter coronavirus plan, “to be published in the coming weeks”, and gear up for a mass vaccine booster programme.
No. 10 is remaining tight-lipped over reports of an impending cabinet rejig, with The Sun’s political editor Harry Cole tweeting that “a major reshuffle this week still seems very unlikely”.
But The Sunday Times reported yesterday that two Downing Street sources had claimed that the PM’s diary was “set to be cleared on Thursday for a possible reshuffle”.
The Independent’s chief political commentator John Rentoul added that “reshuffle speculation has hit fever pitch”, and noted that the increased chatter coincides with the publication of ConservativeHome’s monthly cabinet popularity “league table”.
If Johnson has an eye on the influential site’s rankings, it could mean curtains for Defence Secretary Dominic Raab, who has fallen from third in last month’s poll to almost bottom of the list amid widespread criticism of his handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal.
One of the biggest problems facing the UK is ongoing supply and staffing shortages, which “pose a significant challenge to ministers”, said Wickham.
The Financial Times has today splashed on a warning from the Confederation of British Industry that the combined effects of Brexit and Covid could see the crisis drag on for two years. The BBC added that around 1,000 IKEA product lines are not being supplied due to a lack of HGV drivers.
In a message to Johnson and his government, CBI director general Tony Danker said: “Standing firm and waiting for shortages to solve themselves is not the way to run an economy. We need to simultaneously address short-term economic needs and long-term economic reform.”
At the start of the pandemic, Universal Credit was increased by £20 per week to help struggling households, but the uplift is due end at the beginning of October. Research by the Action for Children charity shows that “working families will be facing the biggest overall drop in their benefits income since 2010”, Sky News reported.
Labour have opposed the cut and is expected to force a vote on the issue during the opposition day debate on Wednesday. In an added headache for Johnson, popular high-profile figures including Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford have also criticised the axing of the uplift.