For the past few months, Ministers and Tory MPs have become increasingly concerned about Boris Johnson and his erratic political agenda.
Hug-a-fish environmentalism. Confusion, contradiction and prevarication over Covid passports. An obsession with high-cost vanity projects such as an Irish Sea bridge.
As one Minister told me: ‘It’s all a bit Red Ed.’
Nick Clegg only got caught telling one massive lie to the electorate. But in the course of unleashing his £12 billion social care tax raid, Boris has told three of them
Over the first three years of the tax rise, only £5.3 billion of the anticipated £36 billion will actually be directed towards social care
This morning, after a week which saw the Prime Minister formally lay to rest the Conservatives’ reputation as the party of low taxation, those same MPs are no longer worried that Boris is the new Ed Miliband.
Instead, they fear he has become the new Nick Clegg.
‘It’s a disaster,’ one despairing backbencher told me. ‘We’ve betrayed our own voters. This is Boris’s tuition fees moment.’
It isn’t. Nick Clegg only got caught telling one massive lie to the electorate. But in the course of unleashing his £12 billion social care tax raid, Boris has told three of them.
The first lie was the most blatant. ‘We will not raise the rate of income tax, VAT or National Insurance,’ he said at the time of his Election manifesto launch.
‘Read my lips, we will not be raising taxes,’ he told broadcaster Nick Ferrari.
‘If Jeremy Corbyn were allowed into Downing Street, he would whack up your taxes,’ he warned in his first party conference speech as leader. ‘Corbyn would put up taxes for everyone.’
Corbyn didn’t. But Boris just has.
The second lie was over the reason for the tax hike. It was time to fix the crisis in social care, the Prime Minister announced. ‘Governments have ducked this problem for decades. There can be no more dither and delay.’
But no sooner had his plans been unveiled than it became clear the dither and delay will continue. Over the first three years of the tax rise, only £5.3 billion of the anticipated £36 billion will actually be directed towards social care.
The bulk of the revenue will be funnelled towards NHS waiting lists. Nor is there any guarantee that after that period any additional funds for social care will be provided. When asked, Health Secretary Sajid Javid couldn’t even guarantee the new tax take of £30 billion would be sufficient to clear the NHS Covid backlog.
The third lie was over the justification for this manifesto-shredding tax hike. ‘A global pandemic was in no one’s manifesto,’ Boris pleaded. True. But the social care crisis hasn’t appeared overnight.
When the manifesto was drafted – long before Covid reared its ugly head – there was no suggestion within it that a magic money tree had been found to provide an additional £12 billion a year to end the iniquities of Britain’s broken social care system.
Of course, this isn’t necessarily fatal, as Keir Starmer is still incapable of effectively attacking the Tories’ crumbling right flank
The idea that social care was on the brink of being fixed, only for the pesky virus to come along and ruin everything, is a fantasy. If Boris had simply stuck with waiting lists and announced ‘Covid has left us with millions of untreated patients. It wasn’t something we could possibly have foreseen when the manifesto was written. I’m going to have to raise taxes till the situation is resolved’, that would have been one thing. It may at least have enjoyed public understanding, if not support. And would possibly have been viewed as a legitimate response to a global crisis, rather than a flagrant manifesto breach.
But that’s not what he’s doing. Instead of a one-off emergency cash injection, he has decided to write his great tax betrayal into law, and ring-fence it for perpetuity. As a result, Labour has taken its first lead in the polls since January.
Of course, this isn’t necessarily fatal, as Keir Starmer is still incapable of effectively attacking the Tories’ crumbling right flank. Whatever promises Boris has broken, the voters still see higher taxes and higher spending embedded deep in Starmer’s DNA.
And the spectacle of him railing against a £36 billion NHS cash injection will only add to the impression that he remains the leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opportunists.
But this is not just another unfortunate blunder, one that will eventually be dismissed with a bit of engaging bluster and some sugary retrospection about getting Brexit done. Lasting damage has been done to Boris and his party.
‘At least he’s been brave in finally trying to get to grips with this issue,’ some people have claimed. No, he hasn’t. The person who showed genuine political courage over social care was Theresa May.
She was open about the need to finally tackle the crisis, she had the guts to level with the voters about it and she paid the political price. Boris has tried to sneak his policy past the electorate concealed in a hospital gown and a Covid mask.
Some others have claimed he should be applauded for this act of subterfuge. That it’s politically astute to use the pandemic as cover for introducing a policy that will benefit a significant number of Tory voters.
Ever since his election, Boris’s opponents have been trying to frame him as a perfidious charlatan. And they’ve failed
But again, the polls reveal this theory to be bankrupt. It’s true that a detailed YouGov analysis shows a majority of Conservative voters back the plan. But 34 per cent oppose it – 19 per cent of them strongly. And any policy that alienates one in three of your party’s existing supporters is political suicide.
Forget the esoteric – and ultimately subjective – debate about whether the policy is socially progressive or regressive. Cast aside, too, the arcane argument over whether it is sufficiently ‘Tory’. Boris’s appeal has always been based on his pragmatism, not any devotion to a pre-proscribed ideology.
All people need to focus on – amid the clumsy sophistry of the past few days – is a single truth. Which is that Boris gave a solemn vow to the British people not to raise their taxes. And he broke it.
Ever since his election, Boris’s opponents have been trying to frame him as a perfidious charlatan. And they’ve failed.
Partly, that’s because his roguish, nod-and-a-wink charm proved refreshing in an era of holier-than-thou political hypocrisy. Partly, it’s because voters, to an extent, see deceit as the currency of politics.
And partly, it’s because on the big issues – Brexit, the Covid vaccine – Boris has delivered what he said he’d deliver.
But from here on those charges will begin to stick. He could have levelled with the voters, been honest and open about raising their National Insurance contributions, and asked for their mandate in an Election most MPs think is little more than 18 months away.
The polls may fluctuate. Starmer may vacillate. But there will come a point in the months or years ahead where Boris will again turn to the British people and say: ‘Please trust me’
Instead, he has opted to join the ranks of the Missionary Politicians. That grey, faceless column of benign plutocrats who believe the people are too stupid or too indolent to understand what’s good for them. And that, as a result, the only way to govern is to lie, implement a policy anyway and hope they eventually forget or forgive.
But whatever happens, the breach of faith has been made now. And it cannot be undone.
The polls may fluctuate. Starmer may vacillate. But there will come a point in the months or years ahead where Boris will again turn to the British people and say: ‘Please trust me.’ And they will raise an eyebrow and refer him back to the events of last week.
He will attempt to expose Labour’s own honeyed pledges. And find his accusations falling on increasingly deaf ears. The next Tory manifesto? If penned by Boris, it will hardly be worth the paper it’s written on.
‘Read my lips,’ Boris told the British people, ‘we will not be raising taxes.’ And then he did.