A cabinet minister has argued that the national insurance rise should go ahead as planned despite Tory rebels reportedly pushing for it to be scrapped as the price for their support of Boris Johnson’s leadership.
Thérèse Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, said there were no “dissenting voices” in government pushing for the increase to be ditched, or pushed back, ahead of its introduction on 6 April.
With Johnson under intense pressure over two investigations into alleged rule-breaking parties in Downing Street and Whitehall, the prime minister has reportedly been urged to U-turn on the tax rise by MPs he is meeting for one-to-one chats in his Commons office.
Critical MPs have felt emboldened to make demands of Johnson given his tenuous position, while he waits for the findings of a civil service inquiry led by Sue Gray – expected within days – and a separate Metropolitan police inquiry.
Despite some backbench Tories clamouring for the national insurance rise not to go ahead, only five of the party’s MPs voted against it in September.
Coffey said she “genuinely” did not know when the long-awaited Gray report would be released, but suggested there was not expected to be any change to the introduction of the levy, which is being used to clear the NHS backlog due to Covid before it will be spent on social care.
“It should go ahead. That’s what’s been decided,” she told Times Radio.
She added: “Parliament voted for the levy, it’s designed to support the NHS and future NHS support as well. It’s set to be happening in April, I see no reason why that will change.”
After some cabinet ministers were said to be nervous about the tax hike’s introduction at a time of sharply rising inflation and when the energy price cap is increased, Coffey denied there was any government split. “I’m not aware of any dissenting voices,” she said.
Johnson’s position could become even more precarious after new evidence appeared to contradict his claim it was “complete nonsense” he had anything to do with approving the evacuation of animals from Afghanistan looked after by the charity Nowzad.
Fresh emails from the Foreign Office showed officials confirmed on 25 August 2021 “the PM has just authorised their staff and animals to be evacuated” – despite thousands of people being left behind during the frantic military withdrawal from Kabul.
Coffey dismissed the revelation, saying Johnson “didn’t make any individual decisions about evacuations”.
She added: “A lot of people will claim that the PM is involved in supporting their particular pet projects but the PM said he wasn’t involved in individual decisions, that is what the defence secretary, who was in charge of Operation Pitting overall, has said as well.”
New rules for unemployed workers receiving state benefits are due to come into force – cutting the time they can spend looking purely for work similar to their previous job from three months to four weeks. Coffey told LBC: “We know there are plenty of jobs and we have plenty of people who receive benefits every week while they are looking for work, and we’re intensifying our approach.”
She added: “There are over a million jobs to be filled and we’re going to help people get into those.”
Despite the mounting pressure on Johnson and Labour accusing him of having been caught lying again, it emerged overnight that he could have been given a significant political reprieve.
The Times reported that the executive of the 1922 Committee, which would oversee a vote of no confidence, decided against cutting the length of time a leader is immune to facing another ballot from 12 months to six.
It means if 54 Tory MPs submit a letter declaring no confidence in Johnson, a vote of the whole party will be held – but another cannot be called for at least a year.