The 2017 Conservative Manifesto was a noble, visionary, brave, beautifully written and disastrous document.
This was fundamentally because its bravery was of the foolhardy rather than the courageous kind. It sought both to deliver Brexit immediately and reform Britain radically. Perhaps the two were never capable of being delivered at once.
At any rate, Nick Timothy permitted the launch, as part of the latter, of an untested social care plan which was, therefore, always unlikely to survive contact with real voters. The near-certainty of an increased Tory majority was thus transformed into a net seat loss and a hung Parliament.
So no wonder today’s Conservative manifesto aims to deliver the very opposite of the 2017 document.
We do not mean by this that it will be ignoble or cowardly. Bur rather, that the commitments in it will have been scanned, swabbed and blood-tested to ensure that it is fit for human contact. It will become clear in the hours and days following its launch today whether or not that scrutiny has been successful.
The pre-briefing in today’s papers is partial and therefore can’t paint the full picture. But it seems that in one important respect at least it is certainly unlike Timothy’s great scheme. It appears to present no grand sweeping design for bracing national renewal.
Where the 2017 manifesto declared “Forward Together”, in a conscious echo of Churchill and wartime, the top line of today’s is: Get Brexit Done, Unleash Britain’s potential – a combination of the practical and the optimistic. Here are some of the items pre-briefed to the Sunday Times together with ConservativeHome’s snapshot reaction.
Cost of living
- A new triple tax lock to stop the rates of income tax, national insurance and VAT rising. Unambitious but therefore credible – in contrast to Labour. Will provoke questions about ruling out other tax rises (though those are inevitable anyway).
- The old triple lock on the state pension, the winter fuel payment and the older person’s bus pass to be retained. Regrettable boondoogle retention – but the manifesto team are minimising hostages to fortune.
- The energy price cap to be maintained – with new energy efficiency measures to target social housing and poorer families. Aimed fairly and squarely at not-very-well-off voters, especially in those crucial Midlands and Northern marginals.
- After-school and holiday childcare to help some 250,000 children. Not the big childcare choice policy we’d have liked, but well targeted at poorer working women.
- Raising the national living wage from £8.21 to £10.50, increasing an individual’s earnings by £1,900 a year over five years. Osborne signature policy turned staple offer of today’s Conservative Party.
- Cuts in business rates, R&D tax, construction tax and employers’ national insurance contributions. Crafted to be less of a niche offer than the Corporation Tax cut that the manifesto has ostentatiously spurned.
- A new National Skills fund together with a “right to retrain”. Eyecatching device which provokes questions about sustainable delivery.
- A new pothole-filling programme. Classic populist commitment – but will local authorities simply keep the money or spend it elsewhere?
- The restoration of some railway lines axed under Beeching. This is aimed at the towns that will decide this election – see Ian Warren and Will Jennings on this site.
- A ban on exporting plastic waste outside the OECD. Designed to keep Johnson’s environmental end up among Blue Planet-type viewers.
- A bar on the export of live animals post-Brexit. Leaving the EU meets animal welfare in popular pitch.
- Reaffirmed commitment to withdraw support from fracking. Retrogade move that can only boost energy costs (though also Tory prospects in some marginal seats).
Health and social care
- Six new hospitals and dozens of refurbishments. Headline NHS pledge aimed at voters’ Casualty-type susceptibilities.
- An end to hospital car parking charges for NHS staff, plus disabled and terminally ill patients. Naked populism straight from the Robert Halfon playbook; drawn up to get noticed – which we expect it will be.
- A three point short-term adult social care plan — including funding – plus the seeking of cross-party consensus for the longer-term. Fundamental sweeping reform? Don’t call us, we’ll call you.
Law and order
- 20,000 extra police officers to tackle serious violence. Reworked commitment to be hammered home.
- Life imprisonment for child murderers. Latest in a long line of measures that will limit judicial discretion…and strike a chord with many voters.
- Faster reaction to knife crime, including the immediate arrest of offenders and getting them into court within a week. Will need more focus and officers to get it to work – and must clear the hurdle of clogged-up courts.
- Victims Law for those suffering from domestic abuse. Johnson will be aware of his weakness among some women voters and the devil will be in the detail.
- More money for schools’ budgets — with at least £5,000 for each secondary school pupil and at least £4,000 for each primary school pupil. Schools were venues for anti-Conservative action during the 2017 poll and this move is intended to help head it off.
- A million new homes and a new first-time buyers’ subsidy scheme. The relative retreat of housing from the political front line since the last election is striking.
As we say, there is no over-arching reform programme here. But that is not to say that it is piecemeal or incoherent: far, far from it.
Energy price caps; a childcare policy that will help poorer women who work part-time in the labour market; NIC cuts; skills; potholes; free hospital car parking – this is a programme put together for maximum political impact in marginal seats, especially those in the target seat-rich North and Midlands.
In other words, for “Just about managing” voters, as we used to call them in the days of…Nick Timothy!
As we say, intense electoral focus rather than a more ideas-based sensibility is central to this manifesto. But that is not to say that conviction is absent. Munira Mirza, the head of the Downing Street Policy Unit, and our columnist Rachel Wolf, who has co-planned the document, are preoccupied with those same “striving”, “battling” voters.
So is the biggest non-Parliamentary influence on the manifesto of all: Dominic Cummings. These provincial voters are the people who were targeted by Vote Leave to deliver the referendum result. Cummings has been light touch during this campaign – barely visible; hidden away: no public appearances, or staff briefings designed to be leaked.
But his influence is everywhere. Last week’s rejection of a corporation tax cut; the NIC proposal; the absence to date at least of any commitment on inheritance tax…all this is part of a plan to be seen as the real People’s Party. In economic terms, it falls short. In political ones, it seems to be working.
So for all the spurning by Boris Johnson’s team of the 2017 manifesto, an undercurrent of continuity flows into this one. We ask of Cummings, as we have before: are you Timothy in disguise? Add to the mix the Prime Minister’s bounding sense of brio and…lo and behold: you have this manifesto.
We’re told that it is “fully costed”. That won’t stop the Institute for Fiscal Studies from giving it a hard time tomorrow. After its defenestration of Labour’s own document last week it will feel obliged to put the boot in. We are about to find out whether Johnson’s sums add up.