When you’re under fire on a policy, you can stick or twist. The key is that you have got to choose which route you want to take early, and not allow doubt to drag on.
That’s one reason why Theresa May has announced there’ll be a ceiling on social care bills, as ConservativeHome predicted yesterday. Another reason must be that there was sizeable internal pressure to deal with the issue. The FT reports that there were “warnings from Tory candidates that it was hitting the party hard on the doorstep”. Which of those candidates might also be Cabinet ministers, we do not (yet) know.
The effects of the policy change – a first in altering a manifesto during a campaign, so far as I can recall – are several.
I doubt that the Prime Minister was looking forward to tonight’s interview with Andrew Neil with much relish, and the prospect now looks more awkward than before. She will at least be talking about her solution, now, rather than just standing by the problem, but that’ll be of limited comfort when he starts asking the inevitable questions.
One phrase we can expect to hear a lot in Neil’s lilting accent is “strong and stable”. The Prime Minister’s core slogan is dented by this about-face – it’s obviously harder to claim stability when you’ve just had to change something that was in your manifesto. It’ll be interesting to see whether she persists with it or alters the message somewhat.
We may yet hear her return to another of her favourite phrases: “politics is not a game”. Publishing a specific proposal on social care in the manifesto was an unusual step, and ordinarily parties would limit themselves to vaguer statements of a review of some sort. Instead, she decided to tackle a major issue head-on, without any work to roll the pitch beforehand. It’s not hard to imagine the Prime Minister arguing that yes, the idea has proved very controversial, and yes, she has had to change it in response to people’s concerns, but that she still thinks it right to do the grown-up thing and try to address an issue of great importance openly before an election, rather than springing a policy on the public after they have voted. Doing so wouldn’t be a cure-all but it would at least make the best of her current position.
More parochially, it’s notable that this is the first time that Nick Timothy has taken a serious hit. Briefings that he personally added the policy to the manifesto, without the knowledge of many at the top table and against the advice of May’s policy chief, are the first scuff on his reputation as an all-powerful force in Downing Street. We’ve regularly documented the eternal battles between Prime Ministers and their Cabinets over where power lies, the competing models of presidential and Cabinet government, and so on – we should expect that this will form part of the next attempt to mount a case for a more collegiate approach.
Of course, while May has acted to rein in the story, she hasn’t necessarily killed it off completely. We don’t know what level the ceiling will be set at, or what its effects on the cost of social care will be. There’ll be more questions to come about the mathematics of this change before media attention fizzles out.
And it has certainly been a painful experience – while there are various reasons why the polls might have tightened in recent days, this policy is being blamed. No Prime Minister wants to see days of negative headlines, or to receive a flood of warnings from voters that their platform is going to cost them votes. Nor does a politician running as the “strong and stable” choice want to have to change tack under pressure during an election campaign.
Having said all that, I’m not convinced this will prove to be the lasting disaster that some are describing it as. It’s natural to think that the big story of the day will continue to be as important as it currently is – for journalists, it’s often their job to talk like this, lest you weaken your story – but that often turns out not to be the case. Witness the topic of fox hunting, which was being hyped up last week but which is barely mentioned now.
And, of course, we still have two and a half weeks of campaigning to go. That’s time in which this effort to blunt the criticism of the policy will be able to take effect, and time in which the fundamentals of the election can reassert themselves. Jeremy Corbyn is still Jeremy Corbyn, and Brexit is still the overwhelming issue at hand. Those blunt facts haven’t changed, and in the end I suspect they will be the predominant factors in voters’ minds. You can be sure that Lynton Crosbyn will be working every hour to ensure that is the case.