The clue that there was a massive bust up in Cabinet over the immigration surcharge for health and care workers came from that wise old bird Michael Gove on Marr. ‘It’s under review”. A sensible holding line which holds no hostages to fortune and gives everyone a bit of wriggle room. Patel clearly dug her cloven hooves in and by Wednesday the Number 10 machine had sold the rickety line of revenue of £900m for the NHS to Boris and he fell for it. The trouble is the argument was dodgy and bound to explode and the figures were bogus. The revenue was actually £90m. So what went wrong? Just about everything. Any fool with an ounce of political savvy would have realised that to charge immigrants putting their lives at risk in care homes and the NHS for their use of the NHS was immoral, indecent and political dynamite. How the hell can you expect any MP to try and justify something so stupid and repulsive?
Starmer was having a bad time at PMQs. He was nervous. Struggling. And Boris was fighting back. Here was a serious silk who had forgotten the rules of cross examination. Keep it simple. Keep it short. And only one question at a time. Far more effective to ask ‘when X said Y to the select committee was he wrong’? It gives the PM no time to think. The choice is to answer another question or denounce one of your senior advisors or worse the ‘I do not recognise that quote which is clearly taken out of context which right honourable gentleman has form for’. He’d have got a few cheers and ‘Boris fights back headlines’. Starmer realised he was in trouble and fell back on his second question about the surcharge, no doubt confident that the PM would hide behind the ‘its under review’ line and buy some time. Starmer couldn’t believe his luck he had accidentally stumbled onto the moral high ground.
The Tories looked on in horror. There would be flotillas of angry emails. Bewildered association members and the terror of being whipped to vote against a perfectly sensible Labour amendment. The perfect storm.
The whips would have been inundated by threats of rebellion. The Standard splashed on it this afternoon. Calls would have been made to Number 10. Number 10 would have had angry exchanges with Patel. And now she has the nerve to spin the U turn as somehow her wonderful judgment shows how much she cares. I feel queasy just writing that.
In normal times she would resign. But that would have been another scalp to Starmer. So if he has any sense he won’t demand her head, just question why the PM followed the judgment of someone who doesn’t have any.
Now the blame game will begin. She will try and find some hapless civil servant as the fall guy. She has form for it. Number 10 will damn her with faint praise and ministers will be queuing up to have a quiet word with Tim Shipman about how they tried to make her listen.
Why is it that those who try to emulate Margaret Thatcher just don’t understand her? She may have bullied her cabinet, but to attack care workers and NHS staff would be something that she would find unConservative and quite repulsive. Because it is. She was never the hard nosed old cow that the left portray her as.
Patel has reached her political sell by date. But she will hang in until the next reshuffle. Semi detached. In office but not in power. There is only one thing that the public demand of their leaders. Judgement. Boris Johnson is very lucky that there will be no more PMQs for a couple of weeks. This will not go away for a very long time.