Naughty Boris! You know the line and its intonation. There goes the prime minister, tearing into the tenets of Toryism with the same puppyish ferocity as his Bullingdon pals used to set about restaurant windows. Ripping up his party’s rules for keeping taxes low and the state small. Pumping billions into health and social care, and risking a mutiny by the very MPs who owe him their seats in parliament.
Boris Johnson: the clothes-stealing, fox-shooting, tank-parking Conservative who can out-Labour Labour, fling loyal allies out of his cabinet and realign British politics.
For the past week, since his taxation and spending announcement, big-money donors to the party have been whining that this isn’t the government they paid for. “Boris will win every election but it won’t be a Tory party that he’s leading by the end,” sniffs fund manager Crispin Odey, who not only bankrolled a Brexit campaign but also made multimillion-pound bets against the post-Brexit economy and thus assured his place in the public imagination as a huge Janus. Meanwhile, rightwing newspapers fulminate about the “death knell for Conservatism”.
It all makes for a lovely story. It also bears as close a resemblance to reality as a Filet-O-Fish does to a sea bass, being greasily askew in history and policy and politics. Tellers of this tale claim Johnson “leans left on economics and right on culture”, as if leftwing politics was solely about raiding the Treasury, rather than sharing out power and reducing inequality. As if spaffing cash while bashing migrants was a feat of multitasking never before attempted at Westminster. As if Margaret Thatcher hadn’t herself raised the general level of taxes over her 11 years in power, the Iron Lady always being far less of a Thatcherite than her fanboys.
But the greatest problem of all is that this framing of the prime minister as the “non-Tories’ Tory” ignores just how rightwing he really is when choosing whom to tax, as well as how to spend their money. As the electorate is about to see.
The single biggest reason why Johnson has shelled out so much can be summed up easily: Covid, where he has had little choice and plenty of company. The UK is a very rich country and, faced with a lethal pandemic, it spent like one. According to IMF analysis, the UK’s budgetary response was in line with that of Canada and Japan, while lagging way behind those socialist vanguards of Scott Morrison’s Australia and Donald Trump’s US.
The immense surprise is that Johnson and the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, are tightening belts well before the final act of this disease – a move both economically rash and electorally foolish, yet which is being launched upon voters with scarcely any softening up. It will have much more of an impact on this government’s fortunes than what happens to no-marks such as Gavin Williamson and Robert Jenrick. It may indeed prove the great unforced error of the entire parliament.
If Tories on the backbenches and in the papers are mewling now, wait until next spring – when the national insurance rise is added to the increase in corporation tax rates and the freezing of income tax thresholds to make a combined eventual tax hike of £37bn. Couple that with next month’s spending review, which is likely to make further cuts to local government and prisons, and you have two big contractionary forces acting on the economy.
It will feel like that most Tory of things: austerity. It will also be a gift for Keir Starmer. From next April, the Labour leader can start each interview by pointing out that Johnson has landed the public with the biggest tax bill (as a share of national income) in 70 years – while giving them fewer teachers, barer libraries and longer waits for hip replacements.
These tax rises bear the same hallmarks of dangerous haste and traditional Tory targeting. When, in 2001, Gordon Brown was readying himself to raise taxes for the NHS, he appointed the ex-boss of NatWest Derek Wanless to lead a review that lasted over a year. Only then did he nudge up national insurance by one percentage point. Twenty years later, Sunak has made a bigger tax rise, with his only real preparation being to brief a couple of journalists. Sooner or later, such drive-by budget announcements will have their own electoral aftermath. Yet in picking national insurance, the Tory chancellor continues the tradition established by Thatcher of putting levies on your payslip or on your purchases, while making it cheaper for you to hoard wealth.
“It’s a tax system that shafts the working class,” says Alex de Ruyter at Birmingham City University. A labour market economist of 25 years’ standing, he notes that, even as more and more wealth is held by fewer and fewer people, British politicians have done little to make things fairer. Indeed, over the past 10 years, Conservative-led governments have set about making the tax and benefits system more unequal. Stripping £20 from universal credit payments next month is not cruel and unusual punishment by an otherwise redistributive prime minister – it is classic Tory political economy.
Whatever No 10 claims, not a single penny of this cash is going into the frontline of social care. That is not just because most of it is going to the NHS: it is because whatever is left over will go towards helping a small number of households pay less towards their care bills. The plan Johnson has adopted is essentially that presented to David Cameron by the economist Andrew Dilnot. At the time, civil servants conducted an impact assessment of the policy. I have not seen it mentioned once in the past few days, yet the report makes eye-opening reading. It shows that most of the billions spent on the plan would go on testing families for their eligibility and other bureaucracy. The number of people who would benefit was “almost 100,000 individuals”. In other words, most of the £5.4bn promised for social care in this package will go on paperwork and 100,000 homeowners.
This plan will do nothing about those 15-minute visits made by carers on zero-hours contracts. It will not put a penny extra in care workers’ pockets. It will do nothing about how the sector has been squeezed by multinational private equity consortiums. It is not intended to: it is a very expensive insurance policy for a tiny number of people.
Last summer, as Britons gathered on their doorsteps to clap for carers, I spent some time talking to care workers about what their jobs were actually like. Most had been deprived of personal protective equipment; some had been bullied by managers when they raised the subject. And if they fell sick, none stood to get more than the statutory minimum sick pay of £96 a week. As one carer, Grace, told me, this forced her to make a choice: either go sick and go into debt, or keep working while ill and infect, and possibly kill, her own patients. Despite many months of protests, this government has refused to fix that rotten system.
I caught up with Grace again this week. She has given up care work, part of an exodus from a sector that has seen carers sign on with Amazon as warehouse pickers for more money. Grace is now a nursing assistant in a hospital, doing tasks she did while a home care worker and working similar hours – but for a 50% wage increase and with readily available equipment. What did she make of the new care levy? “They’re asking people like me, people who work all hours for nearly minimum wage, and who will never be able to buy our own home, to pay more to keep rich families in their homes,” she said. “This government is milking us.”
Sometimes all the political fantasy about the shape-shifting powers of one gifted politician is worth nothing against a working woman who watches her own payslip.
Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist