Boris Johnson has been accused of “deceit” over his plans for the NHS, after his promise of “50,000 more nurses” turned out to include 18,500 existing nurses who the government hopes to persuade to remain in the workforce.
The recruitment pledge was a central plank of a Conservative election manifesto, which also promised to complete EU withdrawal by 31 January, invest £100bn in infrastructure and introduce a triple tax lock ruling out increases in the rates of income tax, VAT or national insurance until 2024.
Glaring in its absence from what many saw as a safety-first, minimalist manifesto was a long-term plan for social care, as Mr Johnson fought shy of confronting the issue that wrecked Theresa May’s 2017 campaign after her scheme was branded a “dementia tax”.
Also absent was any provision to pay for the rise in the National Insurance threshold to £12,500 promised by the PM. A costings document produced by chancellor Sajid Javid included £2.2bn to cover the hike to £9,500 next year, worth around £100 to workers earning over that sum. But there was neither a timetable or funding for the later rise, which was described only as an “ultimate ambition”.
And despite putting Brexit at the heart of his appeal, there was no mention in the prime minister’s speech of the negotiations over a future trade deal with the EU, which will dominate the coming year if a withdrawal treaty is concluded.
The manifesto committed the Conservatives not to extend beyond the end of 2020 the post-Brexit transition period during which the UK will continue to enjoy existing trade relations, thereby heightening the risk of a no-deal crash-out and prompting the CBI to warn against “needless rush”, which could “slow down our domestic progress for a generation”.
Launching the document in Telford, the prime minister said that Conservatives would deliver 50,000 more nurses, 6,000 more doctors and 50 million more GP surgery appointments each year as part of “the biggest cash boost for the NHS for a generation”, worth an extra £34bn by the end of the next parliament.
But party sources later confirmed that the 50,000 figure includes an estimated 18,500 existing nurses who will be encouraged to remain within the NHS or attracted back after leaving by new measures to improve career development opportunities.
Backed by £725m of new government money, the recruitment plan also includes 14,000 new nursing training places supported by bursaries of up to £8,000, as well as 5,000 more nursing apprentices and 12,500 recruits from abroad who will be required to pay a £464 visa and £400 annual surcharge branded a “nurse tax” by critics.
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth described the 50,000 figure as “frankly deceitful”, adding: “First we had Johnson’s fake 40 new hospitals, now we have his fake 50,000 extra nurses.”
And Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Luciana Berger said: “It is insulting to the public and all those who work in the NHS for Boris Johnson to celebrate the return of nurse bursaries. It was the Tories who scrapped them in the first place.
“What the Tories have actually promised at this election is to tax our nurses. By extending the immigration health surcharge and immigration visa fee to EU health professionals, more and more EU nurses will see little reason to stay here in the UK.”
The 59-page manifesto, released in Telford at a launch attended by most cabinet members – but not Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has taken a low campaign profile since his Grenfell Tower gaffe – centred on the promise to “get Brexit done” as well as six guarantees.
As well as the NHS pledges and tax lock, these include 20,000 more police and tougher sentencing for criminals; an Australian-style points-based immigration system; millions of pounds of investment in infrastructure; and net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
To applause from activists, Mr Johnson said that the 12 December election would be “the most critical election in modern memory” and described the Tory manifesto as “the route map to take us forward”.
But the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies think tank, Paul Johnson, said the manifesto was modest in its ambitions, compared to the programmes offered by Labour and Liberal Democrats.
“If a single Budget had contained all these tax and spending proposals, we would have been calling it modest,” said the IFS director. “As a blueprint for five years in government, the lack of significant policy action is remarkable.”
He warned that the tax lock was “a constraint the chancellor may come to regret”, and said that the plans set out by the PM offered no more than “pennies” for public services other than health and schools.
The tax lock was “part of a fundamentally damaging narrative – that we can have the public services we want, with more money for health and pensions and schools – without paying for them,” he said. “We can’t.”
Mr Johnson devoted much of his launch speech to mocking Jeremy Corbyn, following the Labour leader’s announcement that he would be “neutral” in the Brexit referendum he is proposing for next June.
“He used to be indecisive – now he’s not so sure,” said the PM, to laughter from Tory activists.
Accusing the Labour leader of planning “higher taxes for everyone”, Mr Johnson said: “I say let’s go carbon-neutral by 2050, and Corbyn-neutral by Christmas.”
Mr Corbyn said the Johnson programme was “a manifesto for billionaires – they bought it and you’ll pay for it”.
“After a decade of the Conservatives cutting our NHS, police and schools, all Boris Johnson is offering is more of the same: more cuts, more failure and years more of Brexit uncertainty,” he said.
“Boris Johnson can’t be trusted. Older people face a triple whammy as he has failed to protect free TV licences for over 75s, refused to grant justice to women unfairly affected by the increase in the state pension age, and not offered a plan or extra money to fix the social care crisis.”
In an apparent reflection of the damage done to Tory fortunes in 2017 by claims they would legalise fox-hunting – and perhaps an indication of the influence of Mr Johnson’s animal-loving parter Carrie Symonds – the document was the first Tory manifesto since 2005 not to offer a free vote on repealing the hunting ban.
It confirmed that Mr Johnson has ditched his £9 billion offer of income tax cuts for high-earners, promised during the Tory leadership election at a time when he was soliciting the votes of many of those likely to benefit from the move.
And it effectively gave the BBC the green light to withdraw free TV licences for the over-75s, saying only: “We recognise the value of free TV licences for over-75s and believe they should be funded by the BBC.”
On social care, the manifesto committed Tories to extending the £1bn announced to patch up holes in the system next year to cover the whole of the next parliament.
But, despite Mr Johnson’s promise on his first day in office in July to “fix the crisis in social care once and for all with a clear plan we have prepared”, there was no sign of a proposal for reform of the system.
Instead, the Tories proposed to “build a cross-party consensus to bring forward an answer that solves the problem”, on the condition that any solution ensures that no elderly person has to sell their home to pay for care.
Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman Ed Davey said: “The Tory manifesto is built on a lie: that Brexit can be implemented without causing years of chaos and damage to our economy.
“These promises are not worth the paper they are written on. Boris Johnson’s Farage-endorsed Brexit deal would leave the UK £70bn worse off, meaning less money to invest in our schools, hospitals and tackling the climate emergency.”
And while welcoming the “pro-enterprise vision” of the document, CBI deputy director general Josh Hardie warned: “The inconvenient truth remains: sustainable economic growth will be risked if there is a needless rush for a bare bones Brexit deal that would slow down our domestic progress for a generation.”
British Chambers of Commerce director general Adam Marshall agreed: “There’s a big difference between ‘getting Brexit done’ and doing it right. The details matter to both businesses and communities – and the Conservative Party needs to be realistic with the electorate about the scale and complexity of the task ahead.
“Categorically rejecting the possibility of a longer transition period is a real concern, because it means businesses could face yet another damaging cliff-edge at the end of 2020.”
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