You can always tell a Conservative who is losing patience with our Prime Minister because they switch from calling him ‘Boris’ to ‘Johnson’. Johnson, unfortunately, is stretching many Tories’, and many voters’, goodwill to breaking point.
His latest attempt to steal Labour’s clothes – and he’s already stripped the Opposition down to its vest and underpants – also appears to be unravelling. Over the weekend the press were briefed that this egregious National Insurance hike, which drives a coach and horses through not only the Tories’ manifesto promises but the party’s long-standing commitment to lower taxation, was being implemented specifically to deal with issues in social care.
That, it transpires, is not the case: only £5.4bn of the £36bn raised over three years will go to tackling this problem – the rest is effectively a bung to the NHS. We are, therefore, in the ridiculous position where private sector workers – for whom average take home pay is already lower than in the public sector – are facing a 10% increase in NI to pay for yet further salary increases for doctors and nurses. For somebody on £20,000 that will mean an extra £130 a year coughed up to the taxman; for someone on £30,000, an extra £255. These are not negligible sums.
‘We are the party of the NHS!’ roared Johnson in the Commons on Tuesday. Is this really the line the PM should be taking though? Seeking to neuter the NHS as an electoral issue is one thing, turning it into the party’s raison d’être is another.
The Conservatives’ relationship with the NHS should be more akin to custodians; we will do our best to make it work, we will maintain it, and attempt to hold it to vigorous standards. But cult-like worship is unnecessary. The average punter clearly does not believe the Tories will privatise it; even the high priests of monetarism realised denationalisation was impossible. But we should offer more than cheques – we should be trying to reform this most British of behemoths too.
An obvious, very Conservative tweak would be to remove the restrictions which prevent private GPs from referring patients straight to NHS consultants. Many people would be happy to spend a small amount of money managing day-to-day issues outside of the state service, but need the system once the bills get too big. A Conservative Party which is confident in itself would not be afraid of making small, practical changes – for the overwhelming benefit of the majority. Remember: Labour has stood as ‘the party of the NHS’ for decades, and, at the last election, their promised bungs were bigger than ever – and they lost. Handsomely.
There’s also a broader question about this government’s attitude to the public finances. Do we really believe that every pound currently collected by the state is being maximised? Is there really nothing, nothing at all, that could be made more efficient or cut? This is the same state that spent £3.5bn on tanks which constitute more of a health hazard to soldiers inside than out, and that insists on pressing ahead with HS2, at a cost of £100bn and counting. We need a full audit of government: a line by line assessment of what is being spent where, before we even consider tax rises – rises that, in the case of NI, will hit the least well-off hardest.
In 2019, this government was given a historic mandate, by a country tired of technocratic declinism. Millions and millions of people were looking to this Prime Minister to restore our country’s confidence and get us back on track.
It is undoubtedly the case that the left-behind areas he talks about need money, largely for much-needed improvements to their infrastructure and public places – but ‘levelling up’ can only be achieved by re-igniting local economies, encouraging business, stimulating activity and investment. The state, quite simply, has insufficient resources to do it alone. Ultimately, Conservatives know that consistently increasing taxation and spending doesn’t work. We, therefore, have a responsibility – a responsibility which voters have consistently entrusted us with – to take the more difficult path of spending restraint. It may be tough in the short term, but it bears long-term fruit. And, if the Tories don’t do it, who will?
The danger Johnson faces if he proceeds down his current track is that both his new voters and his core support end up turning on him. A stronger, more confident Britain would be a legacy to be proud of. A broke, self-hating technocracy would be a tragedy.
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