Before he announced it, Boris Johnson's big, manifesto-breaking tax increase for National Health Service (NHS) waiting lists and social care funding was the object of deep grumbling and dark threats from Conservative MPs. But when he outlined the plan in the House of Commons on Tuesday, admitting that it broke a promise every Conservative MP stood on in 2019, there was scarcely a murmur of complaint from his own benches.
Few at Westminster doubt that the government will win Wednesday's vote on the tax increase by a large margin, partly because rumours of an imminent cabinet reshuffle have dampened the ardour of some potential Tory rebels. At a press conference in Downing Street, Johnson did nothing to dispel the rumours, and his official spokesman would only say there were "no plans" for a reshuffle.
Keir Starmer's criticism that the plan is half-baked and places too great a burden on the young and poorly off is fair. But the Labour leader's failure to sketch out an alternative plan blunted the impact of his attack, which also lacked ideological coherence.
When Starmer said: “Read my lips: the Tories can never again claim to be the party of low tax”, Johnson replied that the Conservatives were “the party of the NHS”.
The tax increase is a victory for chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak insofar as it reasserts the principle that government spending should be funded by taxation. It also strengthens the position of health secretary Sajid Javid, who will have almost £6 billion extra a year to help tackle NHS waiting lists.
At the Downing Street press conference, Javid refused to promise that the money would be enough to clear the backlog within the next three years. This highlights one of the risks in the plan, which envisages more of the extra funds being diverted to funding social care after the first three years.
Diverting funds from health towards social care will look like a cut in the NHS budget, putting pressure on the government to increase spending further or postpone the rise in funding for social care. But for now, Johnson appears to have pulled off a difficult political manoeuvre, which will allow him to claim, unlike all his recent predecessors in Downing Street, to have taken the first step towards tackling the issue of social care.