Boris Johnson’s U-Turn Proves He Can Listen When The Clap Is Loud Enough

Starmer paved the way, but it was Tory rebels who caught the PM’s ear.

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International rescue

It starts with a tentative, low peal, but soon builds to a cacophony of approval. Yes, the Thursday night Clap For Carers is a mixture of British diffidence and confidence, combining polite applause, banged pots and pans, honking car horns and - invariably - more than a few tears.

Hearing it is one thing, genuinely listening to what it stands for is another. For most people, it represents a display of deep gratitude to those on the front line, no matter which country they originate from. And TV and newspaper montages of the doctors and care workers who have died fighting Covid-19 have laid bare just how many first or second generation migrants have perished helping others.

The profound unfairness of slapping an ‘NHS surcharge’ on such foreign carers is of course what powered Keir Starmer’s PMQ yesterday, and his plea for an amendment to the Immigration Bill to rectify it. At the time, Boris Johnson actually said he had “thought a great deal about this”, not least because such staff saved his own life. Yet he still concluded that the charge was “the right way forward” to uphold the principle of contribution and practicality of cost.

As I pointed out last night, neither justification was sound. NHS and care staff already do ‘contribute’ to the cost of the NHS through their taxes, and this charge effectively taxes them twice (though I don’t think the Tax Payers’ Alliance have been manning the barricades). Moreover, the sums raised are way lower than the £900m figure the PM highlighted. When pressed by us today, the PM’s spokesman didn’t know how much NHS and care workers actually do pay, let alone how much their own healthcare costs.

Few people realise that some NHS trusts are so incensed by the iniquity of the surcharge that they actually pay it on behalf of their staff. That creates the surreal situation where the NHS surcharge is costing the NHS itself money. “If NHS trusts choose to do that that’s of course a matter for them, but the money raised does go into the NHS,” was all the No.10 spokesman could say.‌

At lunchtime, that self same spokesman was pretty firm when asked whether Johnson would be reviewing the surcharge. We had all heard the PM’s words in PMQs and he had no update on them, he said. In fact when asked if the increase in the surcharge (from £400 a year to £624 a year) would still go ahead in October, he was even more bullish. “It was a manifesto commitment made by the government, and it’s on the basis of that manifesto that the prime minister won a significant majority...Yes.”

However despite the line-to-take, there was a small clue that something was in the air. When asked whether the PM would be doing the Clap For Carers again tonight, the spokesman didn’t have a categorical answer. You could almost hear the cogs working in the No.10 brain at PR nightmare choice: the PM not clapping because of embarrassment about the surcharge, or clapping and then being accused of hollow applause.

The first glimmer of a concession came earlier from home office minister James Brokenshire. He told the Today programme that it was “challenging” to separate out NHS and care staff from the surcharge. But, with Tory backbencher William Wragg having gone public in backing Starmer’s call, Brokenshire left the door slightly ajar for a U-turn: “We continue to review the support we give to the health and social care sector.”‌

Of course, the key to any successful U-turn is a coalition between opposition and government MPs big enough to squeak a Commons majority, or at least to inflict serious damage to the governing party’s image. It happened in 2015 over tax credits, when a doughty collection of Tory rebels in the Commons combined with clever ambushes in the Lords to force George Osborne to retreat.

And while Starmer’s bold move was a necessary condition for the U-turn, it wasn’t sufficient without Conservative backing. It was instead senior figures like Rob Halfon, Roger Gale, Bob Neill and Jeremy Hunt who piled the pressure on. Tellingly, the Tory whips had no control over the growing unease that spread on Tory WhatsApp groups. With the Commons not due to vote on the measure for a fortnight, this was a discontent that could have curdled unchecked for several days, with difficult headlines each day.

Of course, it can be a sign of strength not weakness when a government shows that it is listening. Cameron proved that multiple U-turns can be navigated because the public largely think doing the right thing is more important than consistency.

Speaking of consistency, Hunt was the one who instigated the NHS surcharge idea on the back of much-contested figures about the scale of ‘health tourism’. Some feel that he and Matt Hancock have gleefully rolled in the gutter by declaring “It’s the National Health Service, not the International Health Service”. In fact, this pandemic has shown that the NHS is indeed international in its makeup, and its sacrifice.

After the U-turn, Starmer wisely refused to take credit and instead said it was “a victory for common sense” (though some in his party may now want him to go further and demand scrapping of the surcharge for all migrants). The Labour leader had realised that PMQs can be the thing wherein you prick the conscience of the king. Yet it was the careful way he urged Johnson to change his mind that helped liberal Tories to coalesce.

The PM didn’t listen to Starmer, but he did listen to the gathering dissent among his own MPs. No wonder the Whips want to get back to normal working, and keep a closer eye on their flock, after the recess.

Quote Of The Day

“The PM has asked the Home Office and Department of Health and Social Care to remove NHS and care workers from the NHS surcharge as soon as possible”.

No.10 spokesman

Thursday Cheat Sheet

Matt Hancock announced a new antibody test would be rolled out next week, starting with NHS staff first.‌

Government adviser Prof John Newton made clear the NHSX app was not central to the test and trace system. It is “perfectly okay - in fact possibly advantageous - to introduce the one before the other”. TTT (test-track-trace) is dead, long live TT (test-trace).

The FT’s latest ‘cautious estimate’ of excess UK deaths linked to Covid-19 now stands at 63,000. A government coronavirus test study has revealed 17% of people in London and 5% of people outside the capital have already had the illness.

Scientific evidence for reopening England’s schools on June 1 will finally be made public on Friday, Downing Street has revealed. The latest ‘R’ number will be released too.

Boris Johnson will not face a criminal investigation into his links with Jennifer Arcuri. But a police watchdog said the PM had a “close association” and possibly “intimate relationship” with the American businesswoman and may have breached City Hall’s code of conduct in failing to declare his links to her.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon produced her own roadmap for gradually easing lockdown restrictions, including meeting other households outside and playing golf and tennis.

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