Good morning. Boris Johnson will today unveil his long-promised plans to reform social care, first to MPs in a statement to the Commons and then to the public directly at a press conference. It is a huge political challenge, for two obvious reasons.
First, social care is a problem that politicians of all parties have shelved for more than a decade – for the straightforward reason that improving the system will cost huge sums of money, and it is hard to persuade the public to back higher taxes.
This would be a challenge for any prime minister, but Johnson faces an added problem that he fought an election promising not to put up income tax, national insurance or VAT, despite being warned that the social care reform he promised would be impossible without at least one of these taxes going up. Now he is set to break that promise.
Of course, Johnson has plenty of experience of not honouring the pledges he has made to people but until now this behaviour has not harmed his ascent to the top of British politics. But at the weekend Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the Commons, reminded Johnson that George Bush lost the US presidency after breaking a promise not to put up taxes, and so potentially what Johnson is doing today is perilous.
But it doesn’t have to be. If Johnson can persuade the public that his move is justified, this does not have to be another “read my lips” debacle. And overnight we saw the first glimpse of the argument that Johnson will use to justify his flagrant manifesto-busting: Johnson is using the NHS Covid emergency to justify national insurance going up now.
The government is arguing that the £10bn or so raised by the national insurance rise will initially be used primarily to rescue the NHS from the crisis caused by Covid, before it primarily starts funding better social care (after the next election, when the 2019 manifesto promise is no longer operable). In a No 10 press statement issued overnight about today’s announcement, eight of the 10 paragraphs were about the NHS, not social care. And Johnson was quoted as saying:
The NHS is the pride of our United Kingdom, but it has been put under enormous strain by the pandemic. We cannot expect it to recover alone.
We must act now to ensure the health and care system has the long-term funding it needs to continue fighting Covid and start tackling the backlogs, and end the injustice of catastrophic costs for social care.
My government will not duck the tough decisions needed to get NHS patients the treatment they need and to fix our broken social care system.
And this morning Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccine deployment minister, used a similar line in interviews. Asked on the Today programme if Johnson was wrong when he told voters in 2019 that he would be able to reform social care without raising taxes, Zahawi replied: “Well, first of all, there was no pandemic [in 2019], if you recall. This is an unprecedented time for the whole world, and for the United Kingdom.”
Will this work? Who knows, but the NHS is one cause that can definitely persuade British voters to support higher taxes, as Gordon Brown discovered in 2002. When he put up national insurance to raise more money for health, the move was wildly popular (although Brown, unlike Johnson, had spend more than a year trying to shift public opinion on this issue, including by commissioning the banker Derek Wanless to produce a report explaining why the money was needed). It is not inconceivable that Johnson could break two of his main manifesto promises (on national insurance and on the pension triple lock, also expected to be breached today), and yet see his popularity go up.
Here is the agenda for the day.
8.30am: Boris Johnson chairs cabinet, where ministers are learning full details of the plans for social care.
11.30am: Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, takes questions in the Commons.
After 12.30pm: Johnson makes a statement to MPs about his social care plan.
After 2pm: MPs debate the second reading of the elections bill.
2.30pm: Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, unveils her programme for government in the Scottish parliament.
Late afternoon: Johnson holds a press conference with Sunak and Sajid Javid, the health secretary.
Today I will be mostly focusing on the social care announcement. For Covid coverage, do read our global coronavirus live blog.
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