22 May 2017

After today’s U-turn, Theresa May’s ‘Gloriana image’ is a little battered

You have to wonder if George Osborne has ever enjoyed an election more than this one. This morning he was gleefully trailing his Evening Standard exclusive that Theresa May was u-turning on social care. The paper’s leader talks of a “badly thought through” policy.

Polling and word from activists on the doorstep over the weekend appear to have shifted this policy. Quite who was on which side of the argument inside CCHQ as they decided whether to ditch the policy or not isn’t clear yet. As others have pointed out, it’s hard to think of an occasion when a manifesto commitment has been overturned mid-campaign.

In a stark formless landscape of rigid sloganeering, this striking policy stood out even more than it would normally and had a big negative impact on older voters who read their newspapers and listen to bulletins.

Amongst other things it shows the perils of entrusting the manifesto to one man. Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s joint chief of staff, has been working with Cabinet minister Ben Gummer and some others on the manifesto, but there is no question who is pre-eminent and no question whose brainchild this now ditched policy was. Nick Timothy even inserted a swipe (p65) at “the Dilnot Report, which mostly benefited a small number of wealthier people.” The Tories are now picking up Sir Andrew Dilnot’s idea of a cap on individuals’ exposure to care costs.

Civil servants will say this is a reflection of the sort of problems encountered in Whitehall, where Mr Timothy (and his fellow joint chief of staff, Fiona Hill) want everything signed off by them before it meets the eyes of Mrs May. Plenty of officials worry that raises the prospect of Mrs May not getting their advice unfiltered.

This episode marks the card of that very tight arrangement at the top of government but it doesn’t dispense with it.

It also damages Theresa May’s standing. Tory MPs smell weakness like a shark smells blood: from some distance and with murderous intent. The Gloriana image of Mrs May, potentially sitting atop a mighty majority, is a little battered as of today. She had been rolled over by Cabinet colleagues and others in her first 10 months in office, her promised plans regularly diluted. Tory MPs up for re-election wondered if it would be different the other side of an election if she won a big personal mandate. Some will now suspect it needn’t be. Pressure applied might lead to changes.

Then comes the harm of being caught stretching the elastic of truth until it snaps. Theresa May said today’s change in policy wasn’t a change and she said it on camera. It’s the sort of cut through moment that quite a few people will clock. Her standing with some adoring voters will not tumble but question marks about her reliability now lurk in the recesses of even supportive voters’ minds.

You find yourself, not for the first time, reminded of Gordon Brown. His long-time “submarine” strategy, hiding from media encounters for long periods at the Treasury, meant he wasn’t as adept as he might’ve been when confronted with a press conference under pressure. As another child of a vicar, he believed so strongly in his own moral compass that he could sometimes find himself saying that black was white.

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