Quickly nicknamed "the dementia tax," May's social care plan was unpopular. But the wobbly way she executed her swerve on the policy will do her no favoursby Tom Clark / May 22, 2017 / Leave a comment
If politics is the art of the possible, the art of being a good politician is very often making the best of the miserable possibilities at hand. Over the last few days, Theresa May has found herself confronting an unavoidably miserable choice. Far from making the best of it, however, she has mishandled it—in a manner that worsens her immediate predicament, and will do her standing lasting damage in the public eye.
The dilemma was of her own making, in that it concerned a new policy about social care which she had made the headline of her manifesto only last week, and which had since bombed on the doorstep. The proposal, quickly nicknamed “the dementia tax,” would have the elderly pay for their own care if their combined savings and property assets were worth over £100,000.
As it happens, I don’t think the policy was too bad. It had some shortcomings, particularly in its failure to protect those families who end up with the very highest bills. But the core idea was sensible: to harness the wealth locked up in houses to release resources into a service that is so short of them that desperately frail people are denied the help they need to wash and dress.
For all the hysteria about a “dementia tax,” peoples’ houses are already used to foot the bills when they move into a care home. The twist with the May plan was simply that property wealth would now also be used to provide the domiciliary care that might actually allow elderly people to live in their own house for longer. The state’s claim on the property was only to be made later—taken from their estate after death.
The heat of an election campaign, however, is not a wise time to try out an entirely new idea that you’ve not taken the time to road-test. Long years of austerity have exacerbated the Conservative problem of being seen, as May herself once insightfully put it, the “nasty party,” a reputation that invites special suspicion. Springing on voters the idea that they might suddenly be asked to pay for some big, future bill, in a new way, was a gamble—not least because this is, for most voters, a hypothetical bill which they would probably rather keep out of mind for as long as they can.
Whatever the reason, by this weekend it was obvious to canvassers that the whole scheme was deeply unpopular, and May faced the thorny choice between rowing back and pressing on.
The lady is for turning?
A mid-campaign U-turn on a manifesto is unheard of. That is what May has made today, with her announcement that the scheme will now be supplemented with a new cap on total care bills. This is especially significant as, for the last several days, the Tory team have been expressly punting the May plan as an alternative to such a cap.
David Butler, the nonagenarian doyen of British psephologists has taken to Twitter to say “In the 20 general elections I’ve followed, I can’t remember a U-turn on this scale.”
In the 20 general election campaigns I’ve followed, I can’t remember a U-turn on this scale – or much that could be called a U-turn at all.
— Sir David Butler (@SirDavidButler) May 22, 2017
While a rethink was never going to look elegant, it might still have been that May’s move will be less damaging to her than the alternative of ploughing on in a spirit of “no compromise with the electorate.” But May has aggravated her plight in the way she has performed her body swerve.
For one thing, she has proudly—and rather pathetically—denied the reversal she has plainly made. She even resorted to the Trumpian tactic of calling the way that her policy was written up as “fake news.”
Many a politician has to back off from a previous position, but they invariably close down the story, and move on much more effectively, when they are more upfront. Take, for example, when David Miliband went on telly in 2005 to announce a “vaulting, 180-degree, full U-turn” abandoning a long-overdue council tax revaluation which would have meant some facing far higher bills. His retreat might have been just as cowardly as May’s, but it was so easily forgotten because he was cheerfully upfront about it.
The fallout for the “Mayites”
For another thing May, a far-from-sociable politician with few close friends in parliament, will now have alienated some of the very few true “Mayites” she has.
Damian Green, her smart and loyal welfare secretary who has recently come to be talked about as the next chancellor, was hung out to dry on Sunday. On Andrew Marr’s sofa yesterday, he dutifully insisted—no doubt in line with his orders—that there was absolutely no possibility of any rethink here.
He must be fuming now.
Soft and bendy
Third, finally and most damagingly of all, there is a danger that the public will begin to grasp how bendable May can be. As her “strong and stable” leadership slogan suggests, she entered this campaign with an enviable reputation for steadfastness in the eyes of both the press and the public.
In reality, however, she has often ticked and tacked. Not only was this cheerleader of Brexit a Remainer a mere 11 months ago, but she was also committed to quitting the European Convention on human rights which now—in a triangulating tack to balance to her new anti EU-pose—she is committed to staying signed up to.
In the Spring budget, she allowed her chancellor to announce tax rises on the self-employed, but within days had announced she was killing them off.
Most conspicuously, May had publicly stated many, again and again, that she was opposed to an early election, before—with the opinion polls swinging her way—she suddenly changed her mind. None of this seemed to matter, but now—after she has performed another screeching handbrake turn within her slightly tighter poll lead appeared in the Sunday newspapers—it may begin to do so.
What’s worse, is that the concession of a cap on care bills may not settle the argument. What level, people will now want to know, will the cap be set at? And what guarantee can there be, unless huge resources are found to set a very low cap, that the need to pay for funding up to the cap will not eat up a great chunk of the value of modest homes?
The potential problems are of two types. If May wins this election, which she is still overwhelmingly likely to do, her backbenchers will now fancy their chances of seeing her off on anything they don’t like. If you can get her to back off on self-employed tax or social care, they will reason, why not school dinner cuts, local authority funding or maybe even grammar schools? Governing is a lot more difficult when that is the mood.
Secondly, there is the wider insidious damage of coming to be seen as a wobbler. Margaret Thatcher had a brief cluster of bad polls in the 1987 campaign, and her close ally Lord Young was soon shouting at Norman Tebbit that “we’re losing this fucking election.” Whatever happened in private, however, the lady herself was never seen to panic and went on to clean up on election day.
In 1997, likewise, faint Labour hearts began fluttering when one ICM poll showed the party’s lead being squeezed down to three points; Tony Blair was always beset with anxiety about his advantage slipping away, but he never let himself look worried to the electorate, and his projection of confidence was rewarded with a landslide.
May could very well still win one as well. But she has let the country catch a glimpse of the whites of her eyes. She might yet live to regret it.