Where does Boris Johnson’s tax gamble leave Keir Starmer and Labour?

Boris Johnson’s determination to fix the NHS and social care system through a tax hike leaves Labour in a tight spot. They need an alternative answer to the question of how we look after our most vulnerable

Despite some fierce opposition from all sides of Parliament, and some fairly savage leader columns from newspapers that usually give him the softest of soft-soapings, Boris Johnson is sticking to his guns on his tax rise plan.

As many pundits have noted, this means that the Tories are now presiding over the highest level of taxes since about 1950.

The new health and social care levy, which is based on a 1.25 percentage point rise in National Insurance Contributions (NICs), will fund a £36 billion package over three years - and asked directly at yesterday’s Downing St presser whether he could rule out any further rises, the PM was hardly decisive:

“I certainly don’t want any more tax rises in this Parliament. If you want me to give that emotional commitment, of course that’s the case.”

Why is Boris Johnson so bullish on tax?

Well, there’s the 80-seat majority he holds, and the dangling threat of a cabinet reshuffle that’s likely to have stifled out any high profile rebellions from inside the Government.

But more importantly, the PM is well aware that everyone knows there’s a critical crisis facing the NHS and social care, and he’s well aware that most people recognise the need to fund it properly.

Addressing the fact that he’s breaking a Conservative manifesto pledge on taxes, he said yesterday that a “pandemic was in nobody’s manifesto”.

This carefully planned line is an effective riposte, and he knows it.

Where does this leave Labour?

With senior Tories now seemingly content with their status as the party of “fair taxation” rather than “low taxation”, as Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi put it, what does this mean for the Opposition?

While he was at pains to agree that the broken care system needs cash fast, Sir Keir Starmer criticised the Government’s tax hike as a “sticking plaster” that is fundamentally unfair:

“We do need to ask those with the broadest shoulders to pay more including asking much more of wealthier people with income from stocks and shares, dividends or property.”

He followed this up by taking a leaf out of the George Bush Snr playbook, saying: “Read my lips: the Tories can never again claim to be the party of low tax.”

That’s all well and good, but what exactly are Labour the party of?

What is their alternative strategy on taxation, and the funding gap in the healthcare sector?

How would they ensure that the wealthiest pay the most?

With British billionaires having increased their wealth by £106 billion during the pandemic, while a record 2.5 million food bank parcels were given out in the past year, it’s certainly a valid stance.

A National Care Service funded by some form of wealth tax on the super-rich would seem like an obvious starting point, it would carry public approval and it could seize the ‘Levelling Up’ mantle back from the Tories.

But Starmer’s vague words on the idea show that Labour strategists have dropped the ball on this issue.

Meanwhile the Tories have stolen their playing field too.

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