If the "wobble" over the Tories' social care policy looked chaotic, there was a clear logic working behind the scenesby Matthew Flinders / May 25, 2017 / Leave a comment
Partisan politics aside, there is little doubt that Theresa May is an incredibly astute politician. She plays the game well, and has even rewritten some of the rules. The game of politics is rarely as simple as kicking a ball towards the goal; you have to play players off against each other, often within your team, and know exactly when to go for the legs instead of the ball. And yet May has clambered to the very summit of the system, and made it looks as if it were all as easy as a weekend stroll with Philip.
I’m exaggerating to make my point, of course, and “the commentators’ curse” could set in at any moment.
May could yet collapse under a double-pincer tackle from behind (where are Boris and Gove this week?)
Social care was not a disaster
The brouhaha over social care costs, however, was not the disaster it was being written up as before tragedy struck in Manchester. The May manifesto was, after all, strong and bold. It explicitly re-positioned the Conservative Party towards a more traditional model of conservatism and—critically—it highlighted the increasing inter-generational inequalities that will have to be addressed.
This was no “back of a fag packet” effort, but a thoughtful platform for social change that bore the clear imprint of one of the most impressive brains ever to have worked within No 10—Nick Timothy. Could it really, therefore, have been that no one saw the backlash about social care costs coming? Was this really a manifesto rushed out in a hurry, and therefore in need of an early rewrite?
I don’t believe it. Something more strategic was going on. May was effectively cashing-in a little political capital in order to make a point. The current care system is unsustainable. Previous governments have consistently protected the position of older generations for the simple reason that they are the people who turn out to vote. But this is not fair. The reason young people tend not to vote is because they feel that the system does not work in their interests, and that is true—because they don’t vote. Therefore, British politics is trapped in a self-sustaining, vicious cycle, that risks locking in ever-greater inter-generational inequality.
In this context, May’s manifesto plans on care and indeed on means-testing the currently universal winter fuel payments for pensioners were not casually under-cooked or ill-prepared—they represented a calculated decision to soften-up up opinion to some hard realities, to forewarn the country that the current situation is untenable.
A bold strategy
It takes a brave politician to adopt such a strategy, which will—inevitably—be unpopular with many of its own traditional voters. But May can afford to be brave at the moment. Indeed, if she is to make a success of governing later, she may actually need to deflate the easy popularity that Tories currently enjoy—to cash in a little adulation now in order to make the public aware of the need to take tough choices later.
The idea that a strong politician might actually want to cultivate just a touch, a dash, of unpopularity might seem bizarre. But hear me out. There are risks for a government, particularly in the British context of being too strong, too dominant. Like a kite flying high, the stronger the wind the more impressive sight, but also the higher the chance of it coming down with a sudden crash.
With too large a majority, May would have too many MPs wandering the corridors of Westminster, bemoaning the fact that their phone never rang, and they never made ministerial office. Angry, embarrassed and over-looked these backbenchers tend to congregate, scheme and plan… (why, again, do Boris and Gove spring to mind?)
I may be wrong, but my definite sense is that the May wobble was no wobble at all. President May is simply too smart to make such a basic error of judgement. It was instead a calculated move, a slight tug of the string, to take just a little wind out of the sales of the Tory kite—to cash in just a little political capital, in order to manage the politics of public expectations about the future.