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LONDON â€”Â Boris Johnson could be forgiven for feeling some back-to-school nerves as his MPs return to Westminster from their summer break.
With a big promise to fix Englandâ€™s straining system of adult social care unfulfilled more than two years after he won a landslide election victory, the prime minister looks set to break two major tax promises to help make good on the pledge.
It all comes after a summer dominated by criticism of the governmentâ€™s response to the fall of Afghanistan and means the U.K. leader faces a tricky few weeks before parliament breaks again for Westminsterâ€™s conference season, with goodwill from his own party in short supply.
â€œThere is a lot of annoyance and anger with the government about its own goals in the last couple of months,â€ one Conservative MP and former Cabinet minister said.
MPs are still smarting after the government had to swiftly reverse a decision to allow Johnson and his chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to avoid self-isolation. â€œThe government appears to be fighting battles it doesnâ€™t need to on the ground that isnâ€™t natural Conservative territory,â€ one senior Tory in local government said.
Social care, which provides older and disabled people with help in day-to-day living, looks set to dominate the first week back. Englandâ€™s care system has come under intense financial strain in recent years after a long period of underfunding and deferred decisions on sustainable reforms.
Reports over the weekend say ministers are preparing to increase a tax on earnings and self-employed profits to better fund the system. But that sparked immediate concern from Conservative MPs, who were elected in 2019 on a promise not to hike national insurance, income tax or value-added tax. Others inside government were blunter.
â€œAfter all thatâ€™s happened in the last 18 months they canâ€™t seriously be thinking about a tax raid on supermarket workers and nurses so the children of Surrey homeowners can receive bigger inheritances,â€ one Cabinet minister toldÂ the Sunday Telegraph.
Conservative MP Steve Baker, a key Brexit rebel during Theresa Mayâ€™s stormy time as prime minister,Â told the same paper: â€œOf all the ways to break manifesto tax pledges to fund the NHS and social care, raising NIC must be the worst. In this time of crisis, we need a zero-based review of what the state does and how it is funded.â€
Former Chancellor Philip Hammond told Times Radio this weekend that a rise would provoke a â€œvery significant backlashâ€ that would damage the government â€” and vowed to oppose such a plan in the House of Lords.
Local government is on the sharp end of the social care crisis, a pressing issue for many local Tory activists. But while the local government figure quoted above acknowledged the need for a fix â€” he questioned whether hiking national insurance is a fair way to do it.
It would be â€œa bit richâ€ to protect the older generation at the expense of their children and grandchildren, he said, adding: â€œThere are people who got married 40 years ago, bought a house for Â£10,000 in the stockbroker belt which they have sold for over a million pounds, while there are youngsters who are basically living in rented accommodation, and finding it very difficult.â€
Others are skeptical about any tax rise at all. The Tory MP quoted above wants Johnsonâ€™s plan to involve systemic changes, not just fresh cash. â€œThe system needs complete reform, for example technology to keep people in their homes longer. We need to reform systems. If we donâ€™t reform systems, there is no point paying in money. Why are we giving more money for a system that has failed?â€
In a bid to address that question of intergenerational fairness, the government is reportedly flirting with breaking a second manifesto pledge. The Conservatives have long promised that the state pension will rise every April by either the rate of inflation, earnings growth or 2.5 percent, whichever is highest.
But after wages jumped 8.8 percent in the past year, an under-strain Treasury wants to swerve a Â£4 billion spending increase â€” teeing up a big break with the governmentâ€™s own promises unlikely to go unnoticed by MPs.
Against that difficult backdrop, Johnson also faces renewed mutterings from his own side about the coronavirus pandemic and more. A second former minister expects a â€œdifficult time for government ahead,â€ with not only the â€œsound of breaking manifesto promises crashing aroundâ€ but a squeeze on public spending; more Brexit flare-ups; and mounting calls for inquiries into the pandemic and Afghanistan.
They also warned that a fourth wave of the virus could see mounting calls for fresh restrictions, and Johnson is already doubling down on plans to bring in a vaccine certification scheme for large events â€” a move that risks fresh unease from Tory MPs.
Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi dismissed such a move just months ago, but told Sky News on Sunday: â€œThe best thing to do is to work with the industry to make sure they can open safely and sustainably in the long term and the best way to do that is to check the vaccine status.â€
Expect plenty on his own benches to disagree. Another MP said their position had not changed over the summer â€” and that their opposition is â€œtotal.â€