Despite his huge parliamentary majority of 80, the prime minister acts as if it were 20
When Boris Johnson bit the bullet and broke the Tory manifesto pledge on taxes to boost spending on the NHS and social care, he was hailed by allies as a bold and brave leader. Yet he doesn’t deserve these labels.
To create political headroom for his National Insurance rise, Johnson has handed a bagful of sweeteners to noisy, rebellious Tory MPs on two other issues – his Covid-19 winter plan and his proposals to reform the planning rules to ensure more housebuilding.
The goal of 300,000 new homes a year was once Johnson’s flavour of the month, vital for the economy and the prospects of young adults trying to get on the property ladder. But he has blinked amid a panic among Tory MPs in the south following the party’s defeat in the Chesham and Amersham by-election in June. Mandatory house-building targets for local authorities and a “zonal system” allowing homes to be built in some areas despite local objections will likely be diluted. It seems nimbyism has won – again.
On Covid, Johnson’s “Plan B” for the country to survive the winter will probably become his “Plan A”. Today a familiar divide between optimistic ministers and their more realistic advisers on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) has emerged, with the scientists warning that hospitalisations could rise from about 1,000 to between 2,000 and 7,000 a day by next month in England. Johnson is not brave enough to learn the lesson of his fatal delay in implementing restrictions a year ago, when he blocked Sage’s proposal for a circuit-breaker lockdown and ended up imposing a shutdown six week later. That is why Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, gave a barely coded warning to the politicians at Tuesday’s Downing Street press conference not to repeat the mistake, saying they should “go hard and go early” on restrictions if there is a surge in cases.
Despite about 130 deaths a day, and the grim potential for thousands more, these are rarely part of the public debate and so ministers feel under little pressure to act sooner rather than later. The planned relaxation of foreign travel restrictions is another bone for ravenous Tory backbenchers but is bound to result in more Covid cases.
After conflicting and confusing signals on vaccine passports, Johnson sounded quite positive about their use in night clubs and other crowded venues at the press conference. He said – note the use of the present tense – that passport are “an important part of our repertoire.” That was a different tone to Sajid Javid, the health secretary, who delighted Tory MPs on Sunday by announcing that such passports were not going ahead. As Johnson acknowledged, introducing passports could make the difference between businesses remaining open and closing. They should be brought in now.
However, Johnson is not bold enough to risk a Commons vote because of the opposition from about 40 Tory MPs. Procrastination, not bravely leading from the front, is the order of the day – until the passports become necessary, as they probably will. Another unstated reason for putting off the decision is next month’s Tory conference in Manchester, which libertarian MPs had threatened to boycott if passports were required; Johnson would have again been accused of “one rule for us” if they were not.
Other elements of “Plan B”, such as the compulsory wearing of masks and people being urged to work from home where possible, are very likely to be needed. European countries which have retained such restrictions have seen their case numbers fall recently; in the UK, they are rising. As the government’s winter plan admits: “There remains considerable uncertainty and scenarios which place the NHS under extreme and unsustainable pressure remain plausible.”
The concessions to Tory MPs on Covid and housebuilding were designed to stave off a rebellion over the national insurance rise. Johnson judged he could not fight on too many fronts at once. Although the Bill implementing the tax increase was approved last night, 10 Tory MPs voted against and another 40 abstained – a sign of trouble ahead. Many Tories who backed the government did so with a heavy heart. There is a growing sense that the NHS will never “hand back” its lion’s share of the £36bn extra revenue over three years, so the new levy will have to rise again to fund the social care reforms. “We are on a slippery slope to ever higher spending and taxes,” one former minister groaned.
Of course, politics is the art of the possible and all prime ministers want to keep their MPs onside. But it is also about strong leadership. Despite his huge majority of 80, Johnson acts as if it were 20, repeatedly allowing a tail of Tory MPs who shout loudest to wag the government dog. Strong leadership would have meant doing what the prime minister knows is the right thing on Covid passports and the housing crisis. He didn’t.