Boris Johnson’s agenda gripped by paralysis as he fights to survive

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Faced with the fight of his political life, Boris Johnson now risks being held hostage by assertive Tory backbenchers making demands on a range of fronts including national insurance and vaccine mandates.

Other policies are also now stuck in paralysis while the shadow of the Sue Gray report – and a Scotland Yard investigation – hangs over the government, with senior Tory backbencher Roger Gale describing Johnson as a “lame duck” prime minister on Friday. Here are the policies at the mercy of the political storm.

National insurance contributions (NICs)

The Treasury became increasingly alarmed at signs Johnson may be preparing to scrap the national insurance rise in the face of pressure from rightwing Tories.

The Guardian reported on Thursday Rishi Sunak had been privately stressing to MPs that the tax rise must go ahead as planned. On Friday No 10 insisted there was no policy change.

Obesity strategy

Faced with a potential rebellion, Johnson signalled this week that he was prepared to drop plans to tighten regulations on the promotion of unhealthy food and drinks.

The plans were part of an anti-obesity strategy that the prime minister himself had promoted in 2020 to prevent supermarkets from displaying unhealthy food and drinks at checkouts or using them in buy one, get one free offers.

Animal welfare

There was no noise from the prime minister when the chief whip, Mark Spencer, suggested the animal sentience legislation should be watered down to avoid rows with his backbenches.

Senior Tory sources have confirmed to the Guardian that a series of policies including a ban on trophy hunting imports, stricter sentences for puppy thieves and a ban on live exports of livestock have been put on pause after a campaign led by Spencer, a farmer.

Cost of living crisis

Johnson and Sunak had reportedly been due to meet this week to consider options including council tax rebates and a bonus universal credit payment.

Measures to soften energy bill hikes are also caught in the logjam, amid a standoff with the Treasury on how to fund measures to ease the cost of living crisis. The clock is ticking, however, with the energy regulator Ofgem due to announce the latest increase to the price cap on 7 February, which, as it stands, will increase the average annual gas and electricity bill by about 50% to more than £2,000 when it kicks in from April.

Vaccine mandates

Johnson has come under sustained pressure from Tory backbenchers to do a U-turn on rules obliging NHS England staff to have a first jab by 3 February to allow time to be fully vaccinated by 1 April.

The prime minister resisted concerted calls by Tory MPs in the House of Commons for the mandate to be dropped, but at one point told Mark Harper that the government would “reflect”.

Levelling up

The levelling up white paper was expected to be launched this week but has been pushed back due to the political turmoil. It is the latest delay for the flagship policy designed to spread prosperity outside London and the south-east, after the Omicron wave forced ministers to push back a planned publication before Christmas.

It is widely expected to see the light of day next week, however, as Boris Johnson seeks to relaunch his government and repair his public image, while the Met continues its work.

Education

A logjam of bills and policies inherited by Nadhim Zahawi has not been improved by the torpor at Downing Street, as white papers and legislation form a tailback.

A bill about freedom of speech in England’s universities ended its committee stages in September but there is no word when it will move on. A skills and post-16 education bill is also waiting for a date to continue. Other overdue policies include the long-awaited review of special education needs and disabilities, now being folded into a white paper on schools to be finished later this year.

Gambling

Proposals for a once-in-generation review of gambling laws were initially scheduled for the end of 2021 but were delayed until this year, as Johnson reshuffled his Cabinet. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, headed by Nadine Dorries, is now expected to publish a white paper in March. However, sources familiar with the review process say that even that date could now slip, given the chaos in Westminster.

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