Tom Newton Dunn: Use your poll lead Boris — it’s time to show us what you can really do

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 (Matt Writtle)
(Matt Writtle)

Ten bedrooms, a tennis court, 1,500 acres, and a swimming pool in the orangery. Chequers really isn’t too bad a place in which to get pinged during a heatwave.

But there is another reason why being holed up at his country retreat could be the best thing that happens to Boris Johnson this year. It also forced the PM to delay a big announcement last week on his plan to fix social care. The plan is appalling, so now he has a precious second chance to rethink it.

The model Boris Johnson has settled on is hugely expensive and out of date. Devised by Sir Andrew Dilnot 10 years ago, it sees the state pick up the bills for old age care once the recipient has spent an initial £50,000.

Times have changed, we now have record debts and the demographic timebomb of a rapidly ageing population explodes in the 2020s. Worse even than the Dilnot model is the method Johnson had settled on to pay its £10 billion price tag — a penny in every £1 rise in national insurance contributions.

Or, an unfair extra tax on younger workers, as those over 67 (the ones who also happen to need the care) are exempt from paying NI contributions. Plus it’s a tax on jobs, as employers must pay an extra penny in every pound too.

The single advantage of raising contributions is that it’s easy to sell to voters, with some cobblers Boris can come up with about how wonderful it is we all pay a little bit more into a national endeavour to help the NHS.

None of this, I am told, was in the “clear plan we have prepared” that Johnson bragged about on No10’s steps two years ago last Saturday. The original plan, drawn up by Matt Hancock, was based around a compulsory insurance system similar to Germany’s and Japan’s, paid by the over-40s.

So why did Johnson buckle? He feared what older voters might say about it in the run-up to 2019 general election. He thought it would be unpopular. He feared it would lose him votes. So he took the electorally easier path.

Here’s the thing, however, that a growing number of Tory MPs are beginning to point out: it’s not just social care. Yes, Johnson came in with a blaze of buccaneering glory to deliver Brexit for them, but he has all too easily taken the path of least resistance since then.

Big decisions keep getting delayed. Badly needed reforms are being ignored altogether. Johnson appears paralysed by the thought of being unpopular.

Why isn’t the Government thinking about reforming a creaking NHS that’s also about to be overwhelmed by the demographic tidal wave?

Or a perverted tax system that penalises work and rewards unearned wealth like property price appreciation? Or a domestic energy supply still reliant on gas while Britain is supposed to be leading the world in stopping climate change at COP26 in October?

Some Johnson allies have already given up doing anything really big until after the next election.

“This is not going to be a radical government,” one Cabinet minister tells me. “First term governments rarely are, as all they care about is getting re-elected. We’ll have to wait for Boris’s second term until he does something genuinely bold.”

The polls may have tightened a little, but an aggregate of the five polls over the last week still gives the Conservatives a comfortable five-point lead over Labour.

This infuriates one senior Tory strategist. “What the f**k is he doing with a poll lead mid term?” they say. “He needs to burn it. Burn it all, on doing some important stuff. Otherwise what’s he going to run on in 2024?”

Johnson has a shrewder political brain than most in Westminster give him credit for. It could be that while the wider party membership adore him, Boris knows support for him among Tory MPs is broad but thin.

His relationship with them is transactional. Johnson wins elections for them, but as soon as that deal looks in doubt, he might worry that they will come for him.

But if he doesn’t risk his poll lead on doing something important, the electorate might come for him in 2024. What’s the point of Johnson, voters might ask, if he does nothing with the power we give him, beyond making us laugh?

Dom looks set to milk it for all it’s worth

Why did Dominic Cummings bare his Machiavellian soul in an interview with the BBC that many thought he’d regret? “Two words” a friend of the PM’s chief advisor-turned-bitter enemy tells me. “Substack subscriptions.”

It was another crude but effective foghorn to drive subscribers to Cummings’s pay-per-view site. Cummings charges £10 a month to subscribe to his Substack page. The platform takes a 16 per cent commission, so 1,000 subscribers earns him £8,410 a month.

Substack won’t publish how many subscribers Cummings has, and he wouldn’t tell me when I asked him, but one of his recent “ask me anything” sessions received 1,093 questions.

If as many as one in five subscribers asked a question — a reasonable estimate — that’s 5,000 and Cummings is making £28,985 a month.

As any good columnist will tell you, the trick to building a readership is maintaining a good level of interesting material. Will Dom’s subscribers tail off once he’s splurged every secret about Boris? Probably, but that’s still a few hundred K in the bank.

A conference in the flesh for the Tories

Should the Tory conference be virtual again this year, risking Conservative libertarians’ fury, or does it go ahead in person in just over two months’ time in the hope Covid has retreated?

With ageing members in mind, it’s a dilemma that has gripped party chairman Amanda Milling, left, all summer. Labour sent out invitations two months ago, but a Tory decision has finally been taken to go ahead in person, I hear.

The next dilemma: vaccine passports for entry? “We’ll follow the guidelines,” says Labour.

Over to you, PM.

Tom Newton Dunn is a presenter and Chief Political Commentator on Times Radio

What do you think of the Government’s approach to social care? Let us know in the comments below.

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