Boris Johnson insisted on Friday that a £ 12bn national insurance rise will go ahead in April, as he attempted to counter claims he has become a “lame duck” prime minister being pushed around by Conservative MPs.
Johnson’s authority has been battered in recent weeks by the scandal over lockdown-breaking parties in Whitehall, encouraging Tory MPs to exploit his weakness by demanding big changes in government policy.
James Heappey, defense minister, on Thursday fueled the impression that Johnson was about to give in to MPs’ demands and postpone the NI rise, telling the BBC’s Question Time that the top of the party was in “listening mode”.
But on Friday, under pressure from Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Downing Street finally acted to close down the debate, saying the 1.25 percentage point rise – for employees and employers – would go ahead.
The tax rise, branded a “health and social care levy”, is viewed by Sunak as essential to fund a permanent increase in public spending on the NHS and long-term social care reform. “The prime minister and chancellor are fully committed to introducing the health and social care levy in April,” Downing Street said.
Johnson’s colleagues admit that the prime minister appeared to be wobbling on the issue this week: in one television interview he declined eight times to say whether the rise would go ahead in April.
But one Downing Street insider said: “It’s difficult, but the decision is taken.” “The prime minister did leave the door open, but now it’s shut. The PM and chancellor agree this is the right thing to do. ”
The apparent decision is a sign that Johnson believes he does not have to bow to every Tory backbench demand to secure his survival as prime minister in the short-term.
Sir Roger Gale, a veteran backbencher, on Friday called Johnson a “lame duck”, while a former cabinet minister said the prime minister was being deluged with demands from Tory MPs in meetings this week to address the cost of living crisis or drop green commitments .
“Conservative politics has become more transactional,” the former minister said. “Backbenchers are demanding that the government must do ‘X’ or the PM will not be able to count on their support. It only weakens his authority. ”
Another MP said: “We’ve told Boris in these private chats that we are not governing as a Conservative administration. Putting up tax is not a Tory policy. ”
However Johnson has appeared more confident in private meetings as the week has gone on, putting on a more “positive face”, according to one senior MP.
Downing Street insiders admit that the constant delays to the report into the “partygate” affair by senior civil servant Sue Gray have dominated matters, but that Johnson is determined to push ahead with policy announcements.
Next week the government is expected to publish its long-awaited “leveling up” white paper and plans for post-Brexit deregulation. Johnson and Sunak are also trying to finalize a plan to offset the UK’s cost of living crisis.
Torsten Bell, head of the Resolution Foundation, has said that a “cost of living catastrophe” could crystallize in April as families faced “a £ 1,200 income hit from soaring energy bills and tax rises”.
Sunak and Johnson have been looking at a package that includes help for vulnerable families by expanding – and making more generous – the existing warm homes discount. The scheme operates from October to March, but Sunak is also looking to make what government insiders call a “more universal” offer to curb rising energy bills for all households.
The chancellor is opposed to cutting VAT on domestic energy from 5 per cent to zero, but is looking at a mechanism to help energy companies flatten a spike in energy bills, caused by soaring wholesale gas prices.
Johnson’s supporters admit that the police investigation into the lockdown parties scandal hangs over the prime minister, along with the incomplete Sue Gray inquiry, but claim that public anger over the issue is subsiding.
“There is a genuine sense that most people are just moving on,” said another former cabinet minister. “That does not mean they’ll forgive Boris for the parties – there’s not much you can do about that – but they are not talking about it as much any more.”
Some MPs claim they received roughly three times more emails complaining about the trip to Barnard Castle taken by Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former adviser, than about parties in Downing Street. But the affair has badly dented Johnson’s credibility and support among the public.
According to Ipsos Mori, Labor has opened a 10-point lead over the Conservatives on setting the right level of taxes. Sir Keir Starmer’s party also enjoys a significant overall poll lead over the Conservatives, leaving Johnson facing a perilous few months leading up to an ominous-looking set of local elections on May 5.
Even if Johnson can navigate through the eventual moment of reckoning on “partygate” and the cost of living shock in April, the voters will have their say in little more than three months’ time. Many Conservative MPs say that those elections will be the litmus test of whether Johnson is still a “winner”.