Boris Johnson returns from summer recess with an immediate fight on his hands to finalise and push through a plan to increase national insurance to fund social care, despite strong opposition from Conservative backbenchers, Labour and the other opposition parties, and even members of his own cabinet.
Social care was too politically difficult to solve under Labour (Andy Burnham’s “death tax”) and under Johnson’s predecessor (Theresa May’s “dementia tax”). But on Johnson’s first day as Prime Minister in July 2019, he stood on the steps of Downing Street and pledged to “fix the crisis in social care once and for all with a clear plan we have prepared”, promising to introduce legislation on the issue that year. (You’ll note that, had we stuck to the timetable, it would have been resolved pre-pandemic.)
Two years later, we’re finally learning of his grand plan, and it manages to secure neither cross-party support nor wholehearted internal Conservative backing. As a tax on earnings, increasing National Insurance contributions could well tick the crucial box for Johnson of avoiding making people sell their homes to pay for care. But given that pensioners do not pay the levy at all, and that the upper rate for higher earners is only narrowly higher, it means the people paying for Johnson’s promise not to make the elderly sell their homes will be younger, lower-earning workers, many of whom cannot afford to buy their own homes themselves.
We have a housing crisis, an ageing population, spiralling health and social care costs – and we have always, as a country, been better at taxing income than taxing wealth. That reality has been put into stark relief by this fresh attempt to fix the social care crisis. It is not only an immediate political battle for Johnson, but a reminder, as parliament returns and politics feels – tentatively – closer to normal, of the enormous long-term structural challenges this country faces.