Boris Johnson’s care victory shows he can get away with sham policies – for now

By Polly Toynbee
boris johnson at prime minister's questions on 8 september 2021
‘Boris Johnson’s policy flies in a miasma of aspirational promises, while facts are what he says they are.’ Photograph: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA

He does it again, he pulls it off. The figure David Cameron once called the “greased piglet” has slipped from the grasp of his angry party and the Tory press, all incensed by this new levy. Boris Johnson trounced them, a mere five rebels. Despite featuring only 21st in popularity in ConservativeHome’s poll of party members, he defies them all.

As long as enough of the people can be fooled enough of the time, he will go on getting away with downright fraudulent policies. Breaking promises is a peccadillo compared with a social care policy that is a sham from top to toe. But, for now, his policy flies in a miasma of aspirational promises, while facts are what he says they are.

Brexit taught Boris Johnson this important lesson: much political capital can be mined from a hallucinatory politics of make-believe and comforting words. Cloudy visions of sovereignty, independence, taking back control, two fingers to France and Britannia ruling the waves still robustly surf over brutal encounters with hard Brexit truths.

This week’s disgusting revelation is that water companies running short of vital chemicals – due to a shortage of lorry drivers, itself owing to Brexit and the pandemic – will be allowed to discharge semi-treated sewage into England’s already polluted rivers and seas. That follows stories of empty shelves in food shops and Ikea, depleted menus in Nando’s and McDonald’s, and the threat to Christmas produce. Brexit has caused a critical lack of EU carers and food processors, while fishing is stricken.

The prime minister hopes his “clear plan” for “fixing the crisis in social care once and for all” will join Brexit up in that political ether where breezy feelgood words shield enough ears from everyday facts. Virtually no extra money is going into care, no more than the usual annual bungs it gets to stop it collapsing altogether, the Resolution Foundation’s Torsten Bell tells me.

No, it will not prevent most homeowners from being forced to sell up if they need expensive years of care. It will provide virtually no extra money to raise standards: quite the opposite, as it will stop self-payers – who can no longer be charged higher rates than council residents – from cross-subsidising the less well-off, causing some care homes to close. About half of local authority spending on care goes on younger disabled people, and there’s nothing in these plans for them. There will be no new money for professionalising and paying care staff, with 170,000 vacancies expected by the end of the year. It doesn’t come close to replacing the nearly £8bn cut to council care budgets during the austerity decade.

Waiting for funding to be handed over from the NHS is a never event, and any money is assigned first to relieving the costs to the better off. The value of the cap in costs risks unravelling when it starts to pay out from 2023: care recipients may be shocked to find they are still paying substantial sums. Even the Adam Smith Institute has hammered the injustice of a plan where young workers pay more to save homeowners’ inheritances.

Rachel Reeves’ barnstorming speech asked the two key questions: Does it fix the problem? And is it done fairly? No and no. No burden falls, she said, on “financial assets, stocks and shares, sales of property, pension income, annuity income, interest income, property rental income, inheritance income”, adding, “fancy that”. Well yes, many voters do fancy raising greatly more from the richest. That should be Labour’s policy and if it’s about to be, it should have been out there in a plan this week, a plan needed urgently from now on.

For ahead is more austerity, a lot of it, with deeper cuts to all but health and defence. Schools in England will be 1% worse off than they were a decade ago, factoring in inflation and rising costs. Spending plans announced by the chancellor show all the rest losing between 12% and 25%, according to Bell (his Resolution Foundation will report shortly). That’s cuts for councils and all they provide, from parks to potholes, libraries and leisure centres, while they are overwhelmed by rising care needs. There will be nothing making up for cuts in further education or skills and training. The green homes schemes failure was excoriated by the National Audit Office this week. Wherever you look, whatever your particular concerns, there will be less, and still less than in 2010.

The hard Johnson calculus is that individually, each is a minority issue. Even social care or nurseries affect few families at any one time, so exaggerating tiny announcements for money for this or that will do the trick – or that’s his gamble. It’s for Labour to burst those falsehoods one by one, binding together these cuts into a big picture of public service dereliction and delinquency. No, this isn’t an end to small state, low-tax Conservatism. Any government would have been forced to spend massively on relief during the pandemic – and he spent far less than France, Germany or the US. As Sajid Javid helpfully pointed out, we remain a low-tax country compared to European equivalents and British businesses benefit from among the lowest corporation taxes in the western world.

I doubt Johnson can keep his bubble machine blowing out the myth that austerity is over. Whether it’s soaring food bank use from universal credit cuts or the NHS struggling with waiting times, sooner rather than later, enough voters will see through his make-believe politics.

  • Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist


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