Lesley Riddoch: All semblance of governance in Number Ten is about to end

The year 2022 will be about survival not governance for Boris Johnson – but then, what’s new? Survival is what the Prime Minister does best. Indeed, it’s all he’s ever done.

Governance? The business of formulating strategy to achieve long-term goals that benefit the four nations – when has the Prime Minister ever sullied his hands with something so mundane?

Leaving the catastrophe of Brexit to one side, the nearest he came on the domestic front in 2021 was the surprise September announcement of a new social care system for England financed by a rise in national insurance this year (2022), along with a new cap on personal contributions. The plan got pelters.

Former Tory premier John Major said the use of national insurance was regressive and the new system should be funded in a “straightforward and honest fashion” through normal taxation. Commentators agreed that younger workers were being taxed to protect the homes and subsidise the care of wealthier older people. Sir Andrew Dilnot, who first proposed the care costs cap, said the changes would “find savings exclusively from the less well off”.

Still, despite the criticism, a White Paper has been rumbling along as well as any of Downing Street’s other pet projects. Though, with £37 billion allocated to a ‘useless’ test and trace system, that’s not saying much.

But then Boris blew his tiny reserve of political capital within the Conservative Party by protecting pal and paid lobbyist cum MP Owen Paterson. Backbenchers were furious – not so much because an autocratic PM wanted to remove the Standards Commissioner and the prospect of future personal scrutiny – nothing so lofty. The pre-2019 intake was furious about the sudden spotlight shone upon their lucrative second jobs. The 2019 intake was furious that the PM would risk their relatively marginal Red Wall seats just to let the entitled incumbents of Tory safe seats keep using the Commons as a glorified Gentleman’s Club – discreet, convenient, well-protected and undemanding.

This much we know. But Paterson-gate, party-gate and flat-gate have had bigger consequences than Tory Party division. They’ve brought all semblance of governance in Downing Street to a grinding halt – and that includes Boris’s Big Idea of 2021, social care reforms.

Will the national insurance rise – upon which they depend – go ahead this April? It’s highly unlikely. Economic prospects for the year ahead are already too grim. The Resolution Foundation predicts a cost-of-living catastrophe in 2022. From April the average family will face a £1,200-a-year hit as the energy price cap rises and rising inflation – forecast to peak at six per cent – leaves real pay stagnating.

Is this an ideal time to hit workers and employers with a 1.25% rise in national insurance?

Just as Boris managed to aggravate both wings of his party over Paterson-gate and Omicron restrictions in 2021, so the proposed rise to NI in 2022 looks certain to do the same. Hard-line, austerity-loving Conservatives always hated the idea of a Tory Prime Minister raising taxes for any reason. Even for social care. Even in the wake of a pandemic. Even though weak care provision inevitably leaves older people occupying hospital beds.

And since it must be spelled out this way to attract Tory attention – they’re occupying expensive hospital beds.

No matter. Right-wing Tories will object to any tax rise. If they can derail the NI proposals, they will. And since the backbench rebellion over Johnson’s Omicron regulations before Christmas, they obviously can. As 2022 begins, it’s perfectly clear who has the whip hand in the Commons – and it ain’t government whips.

But anti-tax Tories could be joined by pro-tax Labour in opposing the NI increases when the social care proposals come back to the Commons this Spring. According to the Resolution Foundation’s Torsten Bell, “I’d be surprised if Labour isn’t calling for a delay by April, given the likely economic circumstances Britain will then be facing.”

So even if Boris Johnson survives partygate and flatgate inquiries and the publication of Michael Gove’s inevitably underwhelming Levelling Up White Paper in February, his leadership could unravel completely in April – when social reform finally hits the buffers before May elections where commentators are already predicting catastrophic results for the Conservatives.

Every single seat in every London council is up for grabs and with boundary changes, Tory strongholds like Wandsworth (Conservative controlled for 44 years) could go Labour. Tory Barnet and Hillingdon could also fall – the latter significant as it’s the council with Boris Johnson as its MP.

Outside London, the Red Wall seats and the traditional Tory shires will also have council contests and much depends on Labour’s ability to re-establish itself in the former and the Lib Dems to regroup in the latter.

Meanwhile, for the Tories in Scotland, the only way is down.

Council elections were last held here in 2017 – the year of the Ruth Davidson surge – with Conservatives the largest party in eight of Scotland’s 32 councils. But with Douglas Ross now in charge and opinion polls forecasting a Tory wipe-out at Westminster elections, that ‘high water’ tally looks bound to be cut by a resurgent SNP.

The biggest shock to business as usual however, may be delivered in Northern Ireland, where the DUP has been discredited by Boris Johnson’s cack-handed attempt to rewrite the Northern Ireland protocol and Sinn Fein is likely to emerge as the largest single party, claiming First Minister at Stormont for the first time. With the possibility of a Sinn Fein-led government in the Republic, a border poll could soon become a reality.

Now of course, local elections normally get very little attention.

And if he’s still hanging on as Prime Minister by May, Boris Johnson will doubtless deploy his trademark method of avoiding accountability and contrive a large, pointless announcement.

But can that work? Can the Houdini at Number Ten continue to evade responsibility for the disintegration of the United Kingdom? I’d guess the grey men of the Tory Party will have come for him, long before then.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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