Starmer started by asking Johnson to admit that people will have to sell their homes under his plans for social care, contrary to the promise in the Conservative election manifesto. He asked the same question two months ago, at PMQs the day after the plan was first announced, but on that occasion Johnson simply ignored the question. However, yesterday for the first time Downing Street effectively admitted that its plan could lead to some people having to sell their homes. Johnson was not prepared to say as much at PMQs, but it was implicit in the language he used to defend his plans. Starmer was right, and he knew it.
Strip away the bluster, strip away the deflection, strip away the refusal to answer the question, there’s a simple truth and this is why the prime minister won’t address it, people will still be forced to sell their homes to pay for care.
Second, Starmer coined a new phrase to attack the social care plan. He called it a “working class dementia tax”, arguing that the working class would pay because it would be the assets of the middle class that would be protected, not theirs. It is not the catchiest slogan ever, but the “dementia tax” tag worked brilliantly against Theresa May’s 2017 social care plans and this works as plausible attack line against Johnson’s.
It’s another broken promise, just like he promised that he wouldn’t put up tax, just like he promised 40 new hospitals, just like he promised a rail revolution in the North. Who knows if he’ll make it to the next election, but if does how does he expect anyone to take him and his promises seriously?
Johnson did manage to bluster his way through his exchanges with Keir Starmer with some confidence and the occasional effective counter-punch. But, on the substance of the exchanges, he lost more or less 6-0, and Starmer was able to land three quite important messages.
The Labour leader made three broader points, which made his questions particularly effective. First, he turned this into a wider argument about broken promises. It is not the first time he has accused Johnson of breaking promises, of course, but this is an accusation that becomes more compelling, not less, every time the catalogue of examples gets longer, and when Starmer asked how voters will believe anything Johnson said at the next election, there must have been a few Tories thinking he had a point. He said:
And, third, Starmer argued that this was a plan that would involve people paying twice. He said:
Working people are being urged to pay twice. During their working lives they’ll pay much more tax in national insurance whilst those living off wealth are protected. Then when they retire, they face having to sell their home when the wealthiest won’t have to do so.
Starmer went on to use a vivid metaphor to describe what was going on. It’s a classic con game. A Covent Garden pickpocketing operation. The prime minister is the frontman, distracting people with wild promises and panto speeches whilst his chancellor dips his hand in their pocket.
“Working class dementia tax” and “paying twice” are both ways of presenting the same critique. But they are both imaginative, and potentially persuasive. Starmer’s main weakness, though, is that Labour has not yet got an alternative to the government plan, and Johnson was at his strongest making this point. At the next election, attacking Johnson as someone who has broken his promises, and whose social care plan is flawed, will take Labour a long way, but ultimately people want to be able to vote for something positive too.