Will breaking his National Insurance pledge ‘define’ Boris Johnson’s premiership?

Senior Tories warn that plan to fund social care could provoke ‘significant backlash’

Boris Johnson
(Image credit: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

Boris Johnson is facing a growing Conservative backlash as he prepares to announce a manifesto-breaking plan to increase National Insurance payments to fund social care.

MPs and party grandees have warned the prime minister that U-turning on his 2019 pledge not to increase the rate of National Insurance contributions (NICs) “will alienate his voters and fuel fringe parties”, the Daily Mail said. Some went so far as to suggest that the decision to renege on his manifesto will be a “defining moment”.

But Johnson remains undeterred, telling the Commons that he will not “duck the tough decisions” when it comes to “getting the NHS back on its feet following the pandemic”.

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‘A broken promise’

Reports have suggested that while the cabinet remains split over the decision to increase NICs by more than 1%, no member of Johnson’s top team is expected to fight him over the decision when he today unveils the plan.

However, outside the cabinet, Tory MPs have begun queuing up to attack the proposal, with former chancellor Philip Hammond warning that the prime minister risks a “very significant backlash” if he carries through with the proposal.

Speaking to Times Radio, Hammond said: “An increase in National Insurance contributions is asking young working people, some of whom will never inherit the property, to subsidise older people who’ve accumulated wealth during their lifetime and have a property, and, on any basis, that has got to be wrong.

“If the government were to go ahead with the proposed increase in National Insurance contributions, breaking a manifesto commitment in order to underwrite the care costs of older people with homes, I think that would provoke a very significant backlash. I think it would cause the government – the Conservative Party – significant damage.”

Hammond is “among a number of senior Conservatives who oppose the planned rise to fund an overhaul of social care”, The Guardian said, “including former prime minister John Major, the former lord chancellor David Gauke and former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith”.

Duncan Smith said that the policy, “key details of which are still unclear”, was a “sham” that “will not fix the problems with social care”, reported the Daily Mail, while serving Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi this morning told Sky News that he was also not “comfortable” with breaking manifesto promises.

Another former Tory leader, William Hague, said that while “it must be accepted that social care requires a great deal more money”, he is “on the very reluctant end of the argument about funding social care through a tax rise seen as breaking an election promise”.

Writing in The Times, Hague continued that “the cabinet should be having the most searching discussion of how that can be funded without a tax rise”, adding: “It is possible that No. 10 will have underestimated the difficulty of selling this new policy.”

Admitting that Johnson is “an election-winning marvel with an extraordinary instinct for what he can get away with”, Hague said that a tax rise could see his government “defined” by a “broken promise”.

Political misstep?

Downing Street has so far “succeeded in keeping much of the policy detail secret”, said Politico’s Alex Wickham, noting that this was pulled off “largely by locking the Cabinet out of discussions and then presenting them with a fait accompli hours before the formal announcement today”.

“In part because they think it will make it harder for Tory rebels to oppose the looming tax rise”, he added, No. 10 has “combined its social care policy with its plan for fixing the giant NHS backlog caused by the pandemic”, providing it with an additional “big sell”.

In other words, Johnson is attempting to “link the NHS backlog and social care as the two main crises facing the health system”, Wickham said, allowing him to “argue that there is no way to deal with both without a huge tax hike”.

Some MPs, including ex-chancellor Hammond, have signalled that they plan to vote against the measure, while Keir Starmer yesterday told the Daily Mirror that it does not have Labour’s backing as it “simply hits low earners, it hits young people and it hits businesses”.

Johnson is attempting to sell the policy as a plan to “end the scandal of pensioners having to sell their homes to fund care in later life”, the Daily Mail said, but is taking fire over suggestions that it will be “disproportionately loaded on to younger and lower-paid workers”, The Guardian added.

Treasury sources yesterday told The Times that the prime minister has returned from recess in “invincible mode”. As he attempts to reset his premiership, today will serve as the first big test of that optimism.

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