Boris Johnson is facing fresh pressure from his backbenches for clarity on taxes, education, and coronavirus (Covid-19) policy as MPs return to Westminster after the summer recess.
The prime minister has come under fire for presiding over a series of U-turns, including on exam results and face coverings in schools, over the last few weeks. After months of what one Tory MP said had been a “megadisaster from one day to the next”, many are demanding reassurances from ministers as parliament resumes on Tuesday afternoon.
A senior Conservative MP told the PA news agency that backbenchers were “tired of the U-turns”.
There’s that element of calamity – and frankly there are people from the Red Wall seats who are getting jittery. But not only Red Wall seats, but other people who haven’t got marginal seats like that.
We’d like to be in a Government that has the impression of being competent – rather than lurching from one issue to another and then after a short time doing a U-turn.
He said MPs were left with “egg on their face” each time they defended government policy to constituents, and then had to reverse their stance. The backbencher urged the government to say it would be “more careful in decision making” to avoid U-turns, and called for clarity on tax policy to “avoid the Tory party having a public row”.
The Conservatives won a majority of 80 seats at last year’s general election, turning traditional Labour constituencies – which formed the so-called Red Wall – blue. Some MPs are concerned that these newly won seats could be returned to Labour at the next election if the government performs poorly.
Finding a way to pay for the economic impact of coronavirus is already dividing Conservatives. One senior Tory told PA it was right to “consider a temporary change” to the triple lock on pensions for a year – as is reportedly being considered – to “take account of the fact that it is the younger generation who are bearing the brunt of the effects of Covid”.
Another suggested chancellor Rishi Sunak take a leaf out of predecessor Nigel Lawson’s book by reducing taxes in a bid to encourage growth. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, treasurer of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, said the panel’s executives expected to meet Johnson in the “near future” to relay the concerns of backbenchers.
He told PA:
I think there is a lot of sympathy (among Conservative backbenchers) for the fact it has been unprecedented, but then I think we mustn’t make other own goals.
There are other issues like planning which are now beginning to bubble to the surface… devolution of local authorities is another area that is going to surface in the autumn. We must be very careful with what issues we bring up not to create unnecessary controversy.
We may have a big majority but that still doesn’t mean to say that we shouldn’t be as competent as possible as a Government.
He said there had been problems – such as with exam results – which could have been “foreseen” and called for more “strategic thinking” from Number 10.
One other mooted policy is to cut the foreign aid budget, which stands at 0.7% of the UK’s gross national income. Conservative former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell said:
With the ink hardly dry on our manifesto, I don’t think the House of Commons would easily agree to balance the books on the backs of the poorest women and children in the world.
Tory chairman of the Commons Defence Select Committee Tobias Ellwood said the proposal was “shortsighted in failing to appreciate how well-targeted aid can strengthen relationships and open up new markets – thus helping the Treasury”.
CUTTING THE AID BUDGET?
I will not support this.
It’s shortsighted in failing to appreciate how well targeted aid can strengthen relationships & open up new markets-thus helping the Treasury.
Cutting aid also fuels instability which impacts on the UK. Let’s think strategically. pic.twitter.com/I1qfwEV6kE
— Tobias Ellwood MP (@Tobias_Ellwood) August 31, 2020
The government is also under pressure to ensure the reopening of schools in England this week goes without a hitch, and does not push up coronavirus cases. On 29 August, teaching unions criticised the government after it released guidance for local lockdown areas at the “last-minute”. The National Education Union argued they should have received this information “months ago”.
Conservative chair of the Education Select Committee Robert Halfon told PA he wanted the government and exam regulators to provide “absolute clarity” on syllabuses so teachers know what to teach – as well as reassurance for parents and teachers that it is safe to return. He also said schools should run tests to assess pupils’ academic attainment, mental health, and wellbeing, and send the results to the Department for Education and Ofqual to help determine when exams should take place next year.
“I’m not talking about nationwide exams – I think that’s the last thing we need – but just some basic understanding of what catch-up is needed… and to work out what delay is needed if (exams) need to be delayed”, he told PA.
Other challenges facing the Government this autumn including trying to strike a Brexit deal before the end of the transition period, the merger of the Foreign Office and Department for International Development, and the expected rise in unemployment when the furlough scheme ends.
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