10 Downing Street
Boris Johnson, Prime Minister.
Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.
Mark Spencer, Chief Whip.
Dan Rosenfield, Chief of Staff.
Johnson: Hi, folks. Now look. Social Care. Said we’d fix it. Indeed, said when I first entered this building as Prime Minister that we’d, er, we’d, um, “a clear plan we have prepared”. Which really meant that I didn’t actually…which actually meant that we hadn’t exactly… (pauses, coughs)…Health Secretary?
Javid: Well, Prime Minister, of course I take social care very seriously, and I’m mindful of what you said and, sure, we must act. But hang on a moment. What about the NHS? Nine hundred thousand procedures were cancelled during Covid. There are 5.5 million people in England waiting for elective surgery and routine treatment. Could be 13 million by the end of the year. Before the pandemic, nine out of ten people on the list were waiting for fewer than 25 weeks. That’s now has up to 44 weeks. Elective surgery. Cancer. Mental Health. And all while we’re abolishing Public Health England, scrapping what’s left of the Lansley Reforms and introducing a mental health bill. If we do nothing about social care this year…well, that’s another year another government has done nothing about social care. No-one much will notice. But we do nothing about the NHS, everyone will notice.
Johnson: Right. Cripes! Chancellor?
Sunak: I agree with the Health Secretary about the politics. Of course the NHS counts for more than social care with voters. But with all respect, we’ve been round the houses about this one time and time again. I know what’s coming. This is another push by the Department of Health for another baleout. The NHS is already getting 40 billion extra. Where would more go? Into the bottomless pit. Wages. Administrators. Training. Procurement. More patients but no more productivity. Yet the Health Secretary is about to ask for –
Javid: – £56 billion.
Sunak: There you go. And another thing. Just suppose for a moment that the productivity gains came and the NHS restructuring didn’t actually make the problem worse. Just suppose. All the same: where would the money come from? You won’t hear of further spending cuts, Prime Minister –
Johnson: – Got to think big, my friends. Levelling up. Next election. Carpe Diem. νοήμονες βιούσι ού τερπόμενοι βιούν…
Sunak: We can’t QE it. We can’t credibly claim it’ll come from growth; that’s due to drop down again. Or from efficiency savings – we’d be laughed out of court. Markets. Confidence. Interest rates. With respect, the Health Secretary’s £56 billion could mean only one thing – even higher taxes. Which ones? It would have to be a big number to raise over half a hundred billion pounds. VAT? Impossible? Capital gains? Just imagine! New property taxes? Incredible! A wealth tax? Think what Brady would say. Backbenchers. The ’22. Liz Truss! Leadership challenge territory…
(Javid smiles, then frowns, then smiles again. Sunak frowns, then smiles, then coughs.)
Johnson (head in hands): – Aaarrggh…uuurrggh…
Sunak: Income tax? No, no, no. A Conservative Government must never raise income tax rates. Thresholds, of course – that’s a different matter. Then there’s –
Johnson (leaping to his feet): – Wait a sec! Hang on, folks! Just wait… (Clutches head, rocks back and forth on feet, ruffles hair.)
Sunak: Prime Minister, are you ok – ?
Javid: – Are you ok, Prime Minister – ?
Johnson: – Yes, yes, Listen. Just listen. I have it. Eureka! Archimedes has leaped from his bath. O for a muse of fire! God is in his heaven. Destitutus ventis, remos adhibe…
Johnson: National Insurance!
Sunak and Javid: National Insurance?
Johnson: National insurance, my friends! That’s where we’ll find the dosh. Voters think it isn’t a tax! –
Sunak: – Hmmm –
Johnson: Blair did it! Got away with it! And here’s the thing. Our voters don’t pay! O frabjous day, calloh, callay!
Sunak: …Well now, look, Prime Minister. Yes, there’s politics in this plan. I can see that. But there’s a problem. We promised we wouldn’t raise NI –
Johnson (impatiently): – And we won’t! We’ll call it something else! What about…calling it…calling it a…a Health and Social Care Levy!
Sunak: Then there’s the distributional effects. Not great for the Red Wall. Opens up room for Starmer. And, frankly, well, we need an economy that grows, can’t just pile up more taxes on people of working age –
Johnson (waving arms): – Fine, fine. Look. Whack a bit on the wrinklies. Not too much, mind you. If they work, they pay it! How about that? And, and – look here! You want the triple lock sorted, don’t you?
Johnson: Well, it’s a grand bargain! The oldies won’t pay the Levy – most of them, anyway. But they’ll lose the triple lock for a year. Hey presto!
Sunak (To himself): Suppose we could whack on a dividends tax…Fiddle with the floor and ceiling…I mean, they’ll still be paying room and board costs. Assuming it all ever happens. Which it probably won’t. (Looks up.) We should be upfront about the manifesto pledge –
Johnson (Triumpantly): – “There was no pandemic in the manifesto!” Chief Whip?
Spencer: Well, on the one hand, Prime Minister, the usual suspects will be unhappy. And more. On the other, the colleagues are getting a lot of grief in their seats about the NHS. There’ll be more to come – much more. And as you say, Prime Minister, people don’t think NI is a tax. We could chuck some more trade ambassadorships around, I suppose. Dangle promotions. Talk up a shuffle. Throw some more Chequers parties –
Johnson: So you think it could work, eh?
Spencer: Well, yes, it could…
Johnson: Health Secretary?
Javid: Sorts the NHS and saves our bacon. I’m all for it.
Sunak (pauses, then – ): OK, let’s do it. Sorts the triple lock. (To Javid): But you’re not having £56 billion! £36 billion max.
Johnson: Forty-six! (Slams fist on table). Done! Anything else? Health Secretary?
Javid: Well, just one thing. Frightfully pleased and all that. Should sort the NHS problem. But to be straight up, Prime Minister, I’m not really sure it’ll sort even the limited aspect of social care that you, well, pledged to sort. Have to look you in the eye, and warn you that the NHS may gobble up all the money. Wouldn’t be much left of your plan…
Sunak: Just one point. We have income tax. And we have NI which is basically a form of income tax, more or less. Now we’re to have a third income tax – an NI that some older workers pay. I mean, how many other income taxes are we going to have, just because we can’t raise income tax itself? And what about the tax burden on working people? I mean, how high can it go -?
Johnson: – Look, my friends. You’re right, of course. But this will get us through the day. And sufficient unto the day are the things thereof. (Pauses.) Cameron did things, but had no majority. May had no majority and didn’t do things. We have a majority! So we must do things! Even if they’re things that, seen in a certain light…may not be things at all. To govern is to choose! Youth’s a stuff will not endure. Gather ye Rosenfields while ye may! (Gathers papers, ruffles hair.) Jolly good! Must dash! Onwards to victory!