Anatomy of a U-turn

If you are going to U-turn, do it quickly. That’s what Boris Johnson did over an immigration health surcharge including NHS and care workers. So maybe the Prime Minister is brighter than we in the LME usually give him credit for. 

He was challenged on the issue at Prime Minister’s Questions and among several commentators, Guardian’s Andrew Sparrow judged that after two weeks when Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer had the field to himself, “this felt much more like a return to normal parliamentary service - a contested exchange, with no obvious victor, and both principals scoring points.”

Starmer’s “point about a care worker on the minimum wage having to work 70 hours to pay for this was a powerful one. Johnson’s defence was glib, but it did not feel like a decisive exchange.”

That judgement may have stood, had not LME executive member and MP Seema Malhotra smelled a rat, with John’s claim that the charges to migrants raised £900 million. Malhotra knows her numbers. Now shadow employment minister, she was formerly a shadow Treasury minister. 

She asked for a briefing from the House of Commons library and, guess what, Johnson’s figures were misleading in two ways. The £900 million was the sum raised over four years and it was what was paid by all migrants. The analysis shows the true cost is “somewhere between £1.2m and £35m”, depending on who exactly would be exempted among health and care workers.

Malhotra said: “Either the Prime Minister was poorly briefed or deliberately misleading at Prime Minister’s Questions. This isn’t about cost, it’s a political choice and hypocritical of a government that weekly claps for carers.

“In a fair immigration system, why would we want those who are coming to work in our NHS to support us and save our lives, to be paying for NHS care themselves? With these new figures, it’s time for the government to change its mind.” 

She appeared on Newsnight to press that view and had an embarrassed Tory MP Tobias Ellwood struggling to defend the government.

The revelation flushed out Tory MPs who signalled they were ready to rebel.  There was also a viral video made by a Syrian refugee and NHS worker Hassan Akkad.

The U-turn was announced the next day. 

So what was it?  Was Johnson badly briefed or did he deliberately set out to mislead MPs? 

It would be in keeping with his reputation for not being interested in details that he would simply have latched on to the £900 million without asking any questions. 

On the other hand, he is a proven liar – sacked by two bosses, one journalistic, one political for peddling untruths. 

For now, let’s score it as a victory for smart opposition and teamwork on Starmer’s front bench.

By Don Brind - Labour Movement for Europe Press Officer & Former BBC political correspondent

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