Rhys Wallis discusses the Conservative Party’s decision to increase tax, and the potential implications this could have for Boris Johnson.
When the Conservative Party was swept into power in December of 2019, Boris Johnson was at the height of his political power: the party was his after a purge, the nation was now his by a supreme mandate, and his manifesto stood tall as a gleaming example of what wins elections in the age of Brexit. Nearly two years later, his ambitions for a Global Britain seem to be in tatters, members of his own party feel safe to criticise him openly, and that manifesto lies almost forgotten on the floor by his Downing Street desk, promises unfulfilled thanks to Covid, but also due to the choices of this Government. Now Boris Johnson stands as the Conservative Leader who raises taxes: and he will be remembered for it in the polls.
The Prime Minister picked the time for a fight on a National Insurance rise so as not to face backlash from his own backbenchers – that should tell you all you need to know. With a Parliamentary Party of 362, the PM could only count on 319 Tory MPs to back his National Insurance rise – multiple backbench Tories voted against the bill, with even more of his members deciding not to vote at all. Notable Conservatives to oppose the rise in NI Contributions were Jacob Rees-Mogg (Leader of the House of Commons), and former Chancellor (now Lord) Philip Hammond; this turn from the Conservative Leader means not just a diversion from the policies of the last two Tory Governments, but it is also a diversion from the manifesto on which Boris Johnson, and this current iteration of the successive chameleonic Conservative Governments, was elected some 22 months ago. This marks the head of a slippery slope for the Government, already somewhat on the rocks within its own base after 18 months of the pandemic, as it battles with its own manifesto commitments, which it now seems to view as nothing more than guidelines, instead of binding electoral promises.
Boris Johnson is running a political gamble with this tax rise, and he may lose his job over it.
Conservative leaders always fall on the swords placed for them by Conservative Members and Ministers, and this seems as though it could be the beginnings of that sword being sharpened, or at least forged. The party of tax and spend has never truly been the Conservatives; however, this may be as close to it as they come: and it will not sit well with the blue faithful. They will remember this, and if Boris Johnson starts to lose favour with the Red Wall, expect the Blue Faithful to rise up against their leader.
Here is where it becomes dangerous (politically at least) for the PM. This National Insurance rise will see an increase of 10% in what people actually pay in their national insurance contribution, despite the literature making a big fuss of it only going up by 1.25 percentage points. This will be a regressive tax, unnecessarily striking at those on the lowest income, just when they see the increase in their gas and electric prices, and (for some) combining across families with the £20 per week cut in Universal Credit. This is all to cover a £12bn contribution towards a ‘Health and Social Care Levy’, which on the face of it is justified, but is really stopgap funding to patch up systematic failings by successive Conservative Governments: it will not be enough, nor will it be the last time this Government asks those least well off to pay for things they should have accounted for over their last decade in power.
Boris Johnson is running a political gamble with this tax rise, and he may lose his job over it; the winter ahead will decide whether he remains in post on the other side, and breaking a manifesto on such a divisive issue may see to it that the often derided public figure becomes a former Minister of the Crown.