If you are thinking of laying bets on winners and losers in the next reshuffle James Heappey, MP for Wells, may be one to watch. He is desperately loyal, not associated too closely with a current scandal, and, unlike some of his colleagues, can speak his lines clearly. Most importantly, he can repeat official nonsense with a straight face and defend the indefensible without a flicker of embarrassment.
A good example of the former came in a recent interview on Sky TV. When challenged by the presenter, Kay Burley, about breaking a manifesto pledge not to raise tax or national insurance, he calmly stated that the pledge had simply been ‘deferred’. It means the same thing of course but allows the faithful to pretend otherwise. Have you really just ‘deferred’ a promise not to do something when you do it?
The Conservative manifesto may have been incoherent, but it was at least unambiguous on the subject of tax.
“We promise not to raise the rates of income tax, National Insurance or VAT. This is a tax guarantee that will protect the incomes of hard-working families across the next Parliament.”
In plain English, a proposal to increase National Insurance when you promised not to is breaking a promise. In Heappey-speak however it’s not really – and having won a thumping majority on the basis of that very promise bizarrely makes it even less real.
It just won’t wash.
The core problem, as James Heappey well knows, is that at the same time as promising not to raise taxes Johnson announced he had a plan to fix social care when he had no such plan. In July 2019, well before the pandemic, he stated:
“and so I am announcing now – on the steps of Downing Street – that we will fix the crisis in social care once and for all with a clear plan we have prepared, to give every older person the dignity and security they deserve”.
A plan that wasn’t a plan linked to a promise that wasn’t a promise. It sums this government up.
Heappey’s skill at obfuscation was further demonstrated in recent comments on the much-criticised decision to withdraw the £20 uplift to universal credit (UC). We should, I suppose, be grateful that he didn’t claim that far from being withdrawn its retention was merely being deferred. Instead, he argued that as the economy was growing it would now be possible for people to find employment again and they could “make the money for themselves”. This misses the point that almost 40 per cent of UC claimants are already in work, a fact of which he must, almost certainly, be aware.
He agreed that it was “sad” that the cut to UC meant that many families would struggle to “put food in kid’s bellies” as Kay Burley put it but sad, it seemed, in the way that being on a train running 5 minutes late might equally cause regret. Heappey has mastered the art of talking slowly in a deep voice which gives the impression of serious consideration when in fact he is working to a script. He is also perfecting a monotone delivery that drains the emotion from a topic, so we forget he is defending the plunging of thousands of families into deeper poverty.
With increased TV and radio exposure in recent weeks, James Heappey could be a rising star in government ranks. He has certainly grasped that loyalty trumps accuracy if you want to get on under Johnson. He will understand, however, if I and many others in the Wells constituency ‘defer’ voting for him at the next election.