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People keep saying that it’s taken more than two years for the prime minister to finally announce his “fully prepared” plan for social care, a length of time only slightly longer than the gestation period of an African elephant or, it turns out, a fourth (or fifth) Johnson family.
But that’s not fair. In the two years and two months since he stood outside 10 Downing Street and announced his “fully prepared” plan for social care, there have actually been many plans for social care, and arguably, this one is the least radical of them all.
Look, that’s not to say that raising £35bn of new taxes in the name of social care, directly from the people who can least afford to pay them, and then spending three-quarters of it on something else entirely, isn’t a moment of great national significance. Of course it is. But it’s only fair to Boris Johnson that he should be judged by his own uniquely high standards. This plan, probably, is a bigger deal than the one to give care home workers a little green badge with CARE written on it, through which they could try and peer pressure chain restaurants into giving them better prices on lunchtime meal deals.
But when you compare this to his most recent big plan for the social care sector, which specifically was to flood it with evacuated hospital patients but without bothering to test them for Covid first – today is hardly the great man’s most important work.
There’s a lot of nitty gritty to get through with this new plan. The old one was far simpler. As a direct result of that one, an estimated 39,000 people who might have gone on to pay huge sums for care for many years to come, suddenly no longer had to pay any costs at all.
People, naturally, are also fascinated with the politics of it all. He’s broken a manifesto commitment! He’s broken a manifesto commitment! Which he has, but breaking a manifesto commitment is at least a bit like, you know, telling a lie, so the damage this is likely to do him is about the same as the damage that might be sustained to the reputation of Jack the Ripper should it ever come to light that he once trod on a wasp.
There are, of course, the hopeless knots to be tied in. That “the Tories can no longer claim to be the party of low tax!”, as Keir Starmer told the prime minister, with as much enthusiasm as he could muster, all of which fell a long way short of explaining to anybody why they might want to vote for him instead.
There’s obviously the moral outrage that it will be low-paid people that bear the brunt of the tax – if you earn 30 grand a year, you’ll soon be down by about £30 a month – just to safeguard the property-price-inflated assets of wealthy pensioners who can’t be expected to pay for their care themselves. But if you’re a young person earning 30 grand a year, there remains a fair chance that there are some assets of wealthy pensioners, whose names might be “mum” or “dad”, that you’ve very much got your eye on, and the prospect of paying a bit more tax to keep hold of them is absolutely fine by you.
Johnson knows these people, plus the elderly people in question, combine to make the required electoral coalition to make all this absolutely fine. And Keir Starmer probably knows it, too.
Not that the politics of it really matters. What matters is the textbook, trademark, Johnsonian idleness of it all. It’s fair to say this is not the “fully prepared” plan for social care, as invented on the steps of 10 Downing Street two years ago. Of course, as he says, “a pandemic wasn’t in anyone’s manifesto”, but the thing about Covid is that more or less every developed country around the world has had to deal with it, and there are few, if any, that are having to raise taxes in the name of one cause, then spend it on another, which is the immense backlog of NHS treatments that has been caused by it.
And why is there such a backlog? Mainly because this country acted later than everybody else, despite having more warning. We locked down far harder and longer than we needed to. We had more people too scared to go to hospital than elsewhere, because there was far more of a killer virus stalking the streets than there should have been. So the “plan for social care” is at least in spirit, if not necessarily in letter, what it was always going to be.
A plan to cover up for Boris Johnson’s own failings. A plan for social care that isn’t really a plan for social care at all. A plan that’s both not good enough, not fair and not even true. A tiny little badge that gets us nothing. An emblem for the days in which we live.