Boris Johnson has always been a bundle of contradictions. From his self-description as “basically a Brexity Hezza” to being the “libertarian” who brought in some of the world’s most draconian Covid measures, the Prime Minister’s policy on cake has always been “pro having it and pro eating it”.
The Battenberg nature of the Government’s latest chequered economic offering, however, appears to speak to an operation pie-eyed on pleasing the masses, rather than letting Tory voters eat cake.
A rise in the state pension and benefits in line with double-digit inflation may well appeal to those who are never likely to vote Conservative and perhaps that is the point.
Yet those currently in employment but saddled with the highest tax burden since the Second World War will feel like they are only getting the crumbs from the Treasury’s table.
Announcing that the pension triple lock would be reinstated after it was put on pause during the pandemic is undoubtedly a good foil to the argument that the poorest pensioners will have to choose between heating and eating this winter.
Similarly, the idea that benefits will also rise with inflation for about six million people – is, like the state handouts that have already been announced, a good way of looking like you are helping the neediest through the cost of living crisis.
The only problem with such profligate policies, as Margaret Thatcher pointed out, is that other people will have to pay for them. In this case, taxpayers will be footing the £20 billion bill with seemingly nothing in return.
While those who don’t pay National Insurance Contributions (NICs) will be better off, those who are already having to shoulder the burden of the Health and Social Care levy are actively being told by Downing Street to accept pay rises below inflation, which is likely to hit 11 per cent this year.
In the week that 40,000 rail workers have ground Britain to a halt, and with teachers, NHS staff and refuse collectors threatening to follow suit, that is not a surprising stance from No 10 as the UK faces a 1970s-style summer of discontent. But it is a contradictory one.
PM doing his best impression of Orthrus
As when Chancellor Rishi Sunak stands at the despatch box, announcing yet more freebies while insisting he’s all for “fiscal discipline”, Mr Johnson appears to be doing his best impression of Orthrus, the two-headed serpent-tailed dog from Greek mythology.
One head is promising the British public “a high wage economy” while the other is telling workers not to ask for too much money.
Only on Monday, Mr Johnson declared: “Too high demands on pay will make it incredibly difficult to bring to an end the current challenges facing families around the world with rising costs of living.”
Yet Downing Street has struggled to explain how it would not be inflationary to allow pensions and benefits to rise in line with prices.
Surely if it applies to workers’ wages, then it applies to non-workers’ wages too?
Apparently at Cabinet on Tuesday, “The Prime Minister, Chancellor and Chief Secretary to the Treasury led a discussion on the importance of fiscal discipline” while announcing the inflation-busting rises.
Little wonder, then, that one Whitehall source described the fiscally-disciplined-tax-and-spend plan as “bonkers”, while it was left to David Davis, the former Brexit secretary, to remind the Government that it might want to encourage growth in the private sector to promote higher productivity.
With nothing whatsoever in the Spring Statement for small, medium-sized or even large businesses, that sector appears to have been all but forgotten in No 10’s quest to help everyone but the people who pay their wages.