As this manifesto proves, Theresa May is none too fussed about being liked. Ironically, this is part of her appealby Tom Clark / May 18, 2017 / Leave a comment
Anybody who has been in a room with Theresa May can vouch for the fact that she doesn’t do smalltalk; everybody who has had to do business with her suggests that she is none too fussed about being liked. The irony is that—after the Blair-Cameron years of focus-group refined messaging—the sense that May doesn’t need to loved has proved refreshing, and bolstered her standing in the popularity stakes.
So, as the prime minister launched the manifesto that represents her first chance to spell out a personal blueprint for power, the immediate question in my mind was whether her little blue book would have a Millwall flavour: “nobody likes us, we don’t care.” And indeed, at least by comparison with David Cameron’s manifestos from the last two elections, it would appear to have more than a little of that.
Even at the time, but more especially in retrospect, the manifesto of 2010 was a strikingly hollow marketing document. It bore all the hallmarks of Cameron’s shoeless chum, Steve Hilton, with huge dayglow slogans saying “big society, not big government,” complete with acid house smiling faces taking the place of the Os. There was vague talk about reining in government debt, but scarcely any tough choice was spelled out. Even in 2015, after five long years of austerity, the second Cameron manifesto was much more explicit about things he wouldn’t do than things he would—he wouldn’t mess with pensioner perks, for example, and nor would he put up any of the big taxes. Indeed, he promised entirely uncosted cuts in income tax. Yes, there were to be £12bn of “welfare cuts,” but the impression given was that it was only “the system” that would be taking the hit, rather than real people. And when real cuts to tax credits for working parents and disabled people were subsequently spelled out, there was great shock followed by retreat.
By contrast, May today appeared pretty relaxed about telling particular people they will lose. Pensioners, other than the poorest, can forget their winter fuel payments and pensioners as a whole can forget their inflation-busting rises. On social care, where in 2010 the Tories ran a hysterical “death tax” campaign against Andy Burnham’s suggestion of tapping property wealth to foot the bill, May is upfront in saying some people will have to pay more, and others less.
There’s a policy argument raging about whether or not her scheme is any good—the great expert Andrew Dilnot is furious she’s refusing to cap the most ruinous bills—but in political terms, the striking thing is that she is effectively admitting that some people will be worse off. That is of a piece with her ditching of the Cameron pledge not to increase the main rates of National Insurance or income tax. I doubt if she’s planning to jack them up, but she’s blown if she’s going to tie her own hand. You can even think of her retrogressive grammar schools policy, brushed over in the manifesto with some rather opaque language, in the same way. Whereas the last several generations of political leaders have been wary of telling some pupils and parents they will take an 11+ which many will fail, May has far fewer qualms.
But May is, of course, a politician, and so she will do a bit of carefully calculated crowd-pleasing when it suits her—as when, most notoriously, she suggested that it was proving impossible to deport dangerous criminals because of their pet cats. Her cavalier language on Brexit today, which of course she was against until last summer, is likewise more designed to sound good, rather than to embody any workable plan. And it is remarkable to behold the levity with which she has dispatched her long-held desire to rip up the Human Rights Act, and walk away from the European Convention. Her manifesto expressly vows to remain a signatory to the latter, presumably because she’s made the triangulating calculation that now that Britain has tacked towards isolation by leaving the EU, it somehow makes sense to tack back towards the continent on human rights.
It’s also important to recall that, despite the steadfast image, she’s proved adept enough at U-turns. The thinktanks will applaud the candour of today’s manifesto, just as they applauded the technocratically justified rise in National Insurance rates for the self-employed in the recent Budget. May soon caved to pressure, and reversed on this, forgetting she’d ever entertained the thought. Looking at the long list of potential losers from today’s manifesto, one has to wonder whether, when the going gets tough, she will back off once again. That, of course, is assuming that she gets through this election to put her plans in to practice.
But, even after the current slight up-tick in the Labour share after the party’s manifesto, that still looks overwhelmingly likely. You could call May’s approach to politics “how to lose friends and influence people.” And for the moment that appears novel enough to get her though.