Johnson’s Tax Boost Triggers Soul Searching Among UK Conservatives

By Alexander Zhang
Alexander Zhang
Alexander Zhang
September 9, 2021 Updated: September 9, 2021

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has secured Parliament’s backing for his manifesto-breaking tax hike, but the move has also led to some fundamental questions about what the Conservative Party stands for in today’s Britain.

On Wednesday, the House of Commons voted by 319 to 248 in favour of the 1.25 percentage point increase in national insurance contributions despite deep unhappiness among many Conservative MPs.

Five Conservative backbenchers voted against the measure while another 37 did not vote, although not all would have deliberately abstained, as some would have had permission to be away from Westminster.

Johnson said the £12 billion ($17 billion) tax hike was needed to reform social care funding and to help the National Health Service (NHS) clear the backlog caused by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus pandemic.

The move goes against a pledge Johnson personally made in the Conservative Party’s election manifesto in 2019, in which he promised not to raise income tax, VAT, or national insurance.

In the debate preceding the vote, Tory MP Jake Berry, who abstained from voting, warned that it was a levy that would “never go down” and could “only go up.”

“It is fundamentally un-Conservative and in the long term it will massively damage the prospects of our party because we will never outbid the Labour Party in the arms race of an NHS tax,” he said.

Steve Baker, another Conservative MP who deliberately abstained, said his party is “in a dreadful position” and must “rediscover what it stands for” in an age of the ever-expanding welfare state.

“I believe that this is just the beginning of a generational crisis of our inability to fund the promises that have been made progressively for 100 years since the 1911 National Insurance Act,” he told Parliament.

“Now the Conservative Party, at some stage in our lifetimes, is going to have to rediscover what it stands for because I have to say at the moment we keep doing things we hate, because we feel we must.”

“We are going to have to do things differently, we’re going to have to rediscover our confidence as free-market Conservatives,” he said, adding that the party must “show people that we can secure a bright and prosperous and free future which provides for their needs in old age, but do it without every time there’s a squeeze on the public finances coming back for higher taxes, because down that road there is ruin.”

“We all know that eventually, as a socialist, you run out of other people’s money,” he said.

In a bizarre reversal of their traditional positions, the Conservative government attacked the opposition Labour party for voting against the tax rise.

“They have voted against crucial funding to tackle COVID backlogs in our hospitals and capping care costs for the elderly and vulnerable, all while offering no plan of their own,” said Conservative Party co-chairman Amanda Milling.

Labour argued that funding the scheme through increasing National Insurance was unfair and a “tax on jobs” and that it would not end the need for people to sell their homes to meet the costs of social care.

Allister Heath, editor of the conservative newspaper The Sunday Telegraph, said Johnson’s government “is no longer Thatcherite, or even conservative: it is Blue Labour.”

“This is a seminal moment in British politics” and will cause “immense and long-lasting” damage, he wrote in an op-ed.

“Promising not to raise or to cut taxes was always the one weapon Labour couldn’t match, the most powerful way to remind voters that the socialists would steal their money; now any such pledge would remind voters that the Tories are utterly untrustworthy.”

PA contributed to this report.