Johnson has got his tax rise – but his party is restless
It was cynically effective management of parliament. By bouncing through the vote last week on the principle of a tax rise, Boris Johnson and Mark Spencer, his chief whip, made it harder for
Conservative MPs uneasy about the health and social care levy to pay for the NHS backlog and the social care plan to decide that, having thought about it, they didn’t like it.
So several Tory MPs stood in the Commons to say that, having thought about the tax rise, they didn’t like it, but they were going to vote for it anyway. Eventually they did, with the third reading of the Health and Social Care Levy Bill passing with a government majority of 56. Thus the prime minister and his inner cabinet steered the nation around a turning point in political history, even if it didn’t feel like it.
By springing the tax rise on the wider cabinet last week, Johnson, Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid swept aside the feeble attempts of the doubters to ask awkward questions. Then the prime minister took his tax rise across the road to parliament and put it to a vote before Tory MPs had understood the significance of what they were being asked to do.
Yet there was no attempt to hide it. Johnson told them, before they voted last week: “I accept that this breaks a manifesto commitment, which is not something I do lightly, but a global pandemic was in no one’s manifesto. I think that the people of this country understand that in their bones.”
I expected him to bluster around the subject to explain how, because it was a new levy, it wasn’t covered by the manifesto promise on income tax, national insurance and VAT. But no, he said to his MPs: I broke it; you vote for it. And they did.
Breaking a manifesto promise is important, but this government has broken others on the foreign aid target and the state pension, so it is not the breach itself that makes this tax rise so significant. It is that it is a conversion to the cause of high taxes and big government.
Again, there has been no attempt to hide this. I could hardly believe what I heard from Steve Barclay, the chief secretary to the Treasury, who opened the debate for the government by declaring: “This is a permanent new role for the government, a structural increase in the size of the British state. We therefore need a permanent new way to pay for it.”
It was like one of those commentaries on politicians’ speeches that I sometimes write: “What he said, and what he really meant.” Only this time Barclay said the subtext out loud. Normally, I would expect him to talk about exceptional pressures and temporary measures, not what we want to do but we have no choice at this time and hope to get back as quickly as possible to the tax-cutting programme of a Conservative government that trusts the people with their own money. And I would “translate” this into what he really meant: that this is a “structural increase in the size of the British state”, paid for by a tax rise that was “permanent”. But no. He said it himself.
This is a surprising way to deal with a historic breach with the Conservative tradition. Instead of pretending not to be trashing everything they have ever believed, Sunak’s deputy sounded as if he were proud of it. It reminded me of nothing more than the way Tony Blair took his party’s most cherished beliefs and publicly discarded them.
No wonder a number of Conservative MPs didn’t like it. Today’s debate began with objections from David Davis, John Baron and John Redwood to the unprecedented decision to push the bill through the Commons in just one seven-hour sitting. But they knew that they didn’t have the votes to reject the government’s timetable, so the bill sailed on through a series of votes comfortably won by the government.
In those votes, the same pattern emerged as last week: a handful of core rebels voted against the government, while a larger number of unhappy MPs abstained, although it is hard to be sure quite how many because some MPs had permission from the whips to be absent.
One of the abstainers, Julian Knight, explained why he refused to support the government: “By doing this we are forever going down the road that the answer to social care is found through big government and higher taxes.” Marcus Fysh tried to amend the bill for similar reasons, wanting to encourage people to take out insurance to look after themselves. Andrew Griffith, who voted reluctantly for the bill, said he fears that the levy will only pump more money into an unresponsive state.
They all sounded moderate and reasonable, but these are fundamental objections of deep principle. Johnson has taken a huge gamble that the voters will accept that the NHS in particular needs more resources and that taxes have to rise to pay for it.
Given the tendency of the electorate to believe that the NHS needs more money and that someone else should pay for it, he may not win his bet. And then the half-hidden discontents of Conservative MPs in this debate could resurface and split the party from top to bottom.
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