What are we to make of the fact that the Government saw its majority in the Commons fall from 80 to just 26 during the recent vote on its social care legislation?
On the one hand, it clearly shows that a substantial minority of Conservative MPs are worried about the reforms.
Yet any majority government is by nature an internal coalition and the great utility of a large majority is precisely that it creates space to overcome internal dissent. To overcome the Opposition, after all, a disciplined government needs only a majority of one.
After several years when high stakes combined with knife-edge parliamentary arithmetic to make everything atypically, even absurdly high-octane, perhaps we commentators might be struggling to adapt to the rather more boring world of a government which is going to get its business through most of the time.
And yet, and yet. Boris Johnson is no ideological warrior even at the best of times, and these dark post-Paterson days are certainly not the best of times. He might have won an 80-seat majority but he seems disinclined to use it. Backbench MPs broke him on planning reform; it would be bold to rule out their doing the same on social care.
In fairness to the Prime Minister, the basic political problem is extremely difficult to solve. This country has an ageing population and needs to find a way to pay for adequate social care for its burgeoning population of elderly citizens. Those citizens don’t want to pay for it.
What to do? One could in theory move social care onto the NHS ponzi-scheme model, squeezing working-age citizens in order to protect the assets and inheritances of retirees, whilst flattering the latter that they ‘paid in’ at some point.
Ministers don’t seem averse to this, hence the recent hike in National Insurance and mooted plans to slash repayment thresholds on student loans. The problem is that the costs of a fully-socialised social care system are simply too vast to be sustained on that basis, at least without importing huge numbers of working-age people (no prizes for guessing how ‘mass immigration’ polls with older voters).
Which leaves little alternative but to ask people who can afford it to contribute something towards the cost of a comfortable senescence. This presents the Government with a different, but no less exciting, minefield to cross.
Once one has accepted the principle of asking people to contribute, there follows a second choice: do you cap contributions at a maximum level, or not?
Politically, a cap seems like the obvious choice. It sets a hard upper limit on the amount that anyone will have to contribute and avoids the prospect of the State taking vast chunks out of the estates of well-to-do voters.
But this is a two-edged sword, because an inevitable consequence of a hard cap is that whatever amount you do decide to take from people, it will always comprise a proportionally larger share of a smaller fortune than a larger one. As a result, the Government’s proposals seem to be hitting voters in ‘Red Wall’ seats harder, as a proportion of their wealth, than those in the Conservatives’ shire heartlands.
It is quite understandable that the MPs representing those constituencies should kick up a fuss. That’s their job. But the alternatives are to rinse wealthier, largely southern homeowners (good luck with that) or have the State pay for everything, which is impossible to square with Rishi Sunak’s commitment to be cutting taxes by the end of the Parliament.
All of which is a reminder that cobbling together a novel coalition to win the 2019 general election was only the start of any historic realignment project. The longer, much more difficult task is forging it into a durable alliance whose various interests align on enough issues to allow for a coherent programme for government.
The exigencies of the pandemic, during which the Treasury could simply hose money at the nation, allowed the Conservatives to postpone this reckoning. But not forever.
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