Boris Johnson tonight scotched his own pledge to help millions of women hit by state pension age rises in a breathtaking live TV U-turn.
The Prime Minister went back on his claim during the Tory leadership contest that he would “return to this issue with fresh vigour” after ‘WASPI’ women begged him for help.
Back in the summer he claimed: “The Treasury raise some stupefying sum that they say will be necessary to deal with it. I’m not convinced that’s necessarily true. Let’s see what we can do.”
Yet tonight he came face-to-face with one of the women hit on a BBC Question Time special – and told her it was very expensive.
He added: “I cannot promise that I can magic up that money for you tonight.”
The incident is likely to draw immediate comparisons with Theresa May – who infamously told a nurse there was no “magic money tree” in 2017 on the same programme.
He said he “sympathised deeply” and “would love to magic a solution” but it is “very expensive” to sort out.
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It comes after years of battles for around 3.8million women born in the 1950s, who are having their state pension age hiked to reach 66 by 2020.
Ministers say the change is to make women’s retirement age equal to men’s – and would cost £181bn to fully reverse.
Women argued the change was unlawful age and sex discrimination and came with too little notice, but their claims were rejected in court.
Back in July Mr Johnson said: “I must say the answer I’ve got back from the Treasury is not yet satisfactory.
“I will undertake – if I’m lucky enough to succeed in this campaign – to return to this issue with fresh vigour and new eyes and see what I can do to sort it out.
“Because I’m conscious it’s been going on for too long.”
Yet tonight he said: “The WASPI issue as everyone knows is a very difficult problem caused by a change in the pension age for women who retired at a certain age.
“And I do sympathise deeply with the position of the WASPI women.
“And we have looked at it and looked at it and looked at it. I would love to be able to magic you a solution.
“It is very expensive to come up with the solution that you want.
“And I’m going to be honest with you tonight. I cannot promise that I can magic up that money for you tonight. All the demands the WASPI women have made.
“It is not possible to satisfy all the demands of the WASPI women. I’ll put my hands up and confess that.”
The Prime Minister and Labour leader were each due to be quizzed for 30 minutes by a BBC1 Question Time studio audience in Sheffield.
Lib Dem chief Jo Swinson and the SNP ’s Nicola Sturgeon were also confronted with voters’ questions, hosted by BBC presenter Fiona Bruce.
The leaders drew lots to decide the appearance order.
The format has proved tricky for No10 hopefuls in the past; in 2015 Ed Miliband stumbled off the stage after fielding questions for half an hour.
And in 2017 Theresa May was wounded after shouting at a nurse: “There is no magic money tree!”
The TV showdown comes after Labour launched its manifesto, and on the eve of the Conservatives’ unveiling their ballot box blueprint.
A hike to women’s state pension age from 60 to 65, over 10 years starting in 2010, was first proposed in the 1995 Pensions Act.
But that was accelerated by the 2011 Pensions Act, which laid out plans to hike the age to 65 in November 2018 – followed by 66 in October 2020.
Facing an outcry, ministers agreed a £1.1bn concession in the final stages of the Act, supposedly to limit any one person’s pension age rise to 18 months.
But the women’s lawyer Michael Mansfield QC said: “They have pushed women who were already disadvantaged into the lowest class you can imagine. They’re on the brink of survival.”
The judicial review was brought by the group Back to 60, which says women had a “legitimate expectation” to receive their pension aged 60 and demands “the return of those earned dues”.
Separately, Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI) is calling for “fair transitional arrangements” to help women financially, but not a full return to age 60.