Yet Another Strong and Stable U-Turn
That didn't last long, even by the standards of Theresa May promises. Less than four days after the launch of the Tory manifesto, with much fanfare about fairness and a Britain that works for all, May has pulled the plug on her pledge to pay for old people's care bills by forcing their heirs to sell their homes. Canvassers' feedback from the election stump indicated that the 'dementia tax' was not playing well in the shires. What was 'sensible' last Thursday is today a vote-losing raid on the nation's nest eggs.
After the manifesto launch, members of May's backing group in the press were quick to sing her praises. 'We wanted a politics of audacity. May's manifesto delivers it,' oiled Matthew d'Ancona in the Guardian. Whether this chutzpah comports happily with strength and stability is a question we no longer need to ask. The policy's gone the way of other policies brought in with a tootle on the bugle, such as German-style 'co-determination', with workers on company boards, the energy bill price cap branded 'Marxist' when Ed Miliband proposed it before the last election, the National Insurance hike for self-employed workers in the March budget, and no election till 2020. May's conviction this time last year that Brexit would plunge the UK's economic future into mortal peril belongs to the mists of prehistory.
The old policy from last Thursday converted the ceiling on state-funded social care from £23,000 to a floor of £100,000 before costs are recovered. But it extended eligible costs to include domiciliary as well as residential care, and the stand-out clause about liquidating people's homes to pay the care bill after they die has put the wind up Tory planners. It's said that the policy was brought in behind the backs of some cabinet ministers, and is another initiative by Nick Timothy, May's joint chief of staff. Critics pointed out that the policy threatened to impose a hierarchy of ailments between Alzheimer's sufferers who lived at home and hospital cancer patients. May has now decided that the edifice requires a ceiling as well as a floor, though she hasn't yet said how high this will be. Despite Jeremy Hunt's claims on the Today programme this morning, no cap on costs was mentioned in the manifesto, which rejected the one proposed by the Dilnot report.
George Osborne, for the Continuity Cameroons, has been gunning for May from his new emplacement at the Standard. This may be due in part to principled pique at having been garrotted by his old cabinet colleague when she took over last July, though he may also have a personal grievance at the policy's attack on inherited wealth – he has his family's wallpaper loot to consider. Perhaps he was miffed that the manifesto euthanased one of his brain-children, the pension triple lock. At any rate, he wasted no time tweeting about the cave-in when it was announced.
Tory planners will have been rattled by a poll over the weekend suggesting that the Conservative lead over Labour has narrowed – though it's still estimated at between 9 and 13 points. Enough feathers were ruffled at Central Office for the party to buy Google advertising so that people who searched for 'dementia tax' would be pointed towards a Tory page on ‘The so-called “dementia tax” – Get the real facts.’ It has now been taken down; apparently the real facts weren't enough.
May has pulled off yet another strong and stable U-turn. One of its effects is to keep social care, rather than Brexit, dominating the news cycle. This doesn’t help the Tories. The Economist’s nickname for the prime minister, Theresa Maybe, may be about to stick. The other two main elements of the manifesto's triple whammy against the elderly – imposing means-testing for the winter fuel allowance and downgrading the pension guarantee to a double lock – remain in place. For now.