The five things you need to know about the Tory 2017 manifesto…
1) ENEMY LINES
Locations for election manifesto launches always tell you a lot about the ambition (or lack of it) of a party leader. Theresa May chose Halifax very deliberately indeed, as it sums up both sides of the May personality – the safe Theresa and the bold Theresa.
Safe, because Labour MP Holly Lynch has a tiny majority of just 428 votes and the barest puff of wind from a Tory swing would turn it Tory. But Halifax was a bold choice too because it is deep inside Labour’s West Yorkshire heartland, a very visible symbol of all those tougher bits of the political map that she wants to turn blue after decades of being red. No wonder there was literally trouble ‘t mill as she was confronted with protesting Labour and union activists on her arrival at Dean Clough Mill. ‘True North’ was the huge sign hung over the nearby former carpet factory.
By regularly staging daring raids behind enemy lines, May forces Jeremy Corbyn to use his thin resources on defending the defensible rather than more vulnerable marginals, or even offensive targets of its own. Yet the much bigger picture is the PM’s belief that Labour supporters who backed ‘Leave’ in the EU referendum (Halifax was 55% Leave to 45% Remain) will vote for her party for the very first time to ensure Brexit is definitely delivered.
After he called the general election in 2015, David Cameron raced from the steps of No10 to Chippenham in the South West to launch his Tory campaign. His intention couldn’t have been clearer: he wanted to wipe out all those Lib Dem seats needed to get him that longed-for majority. The tactic worked, but key bits of northern England stubbornly resisted. Cameron did visit Halifax to launch his much-mocked ‘road movie’ poster, but the town wasn’t impressed enough to ditch Labour.
In fact, the last time a Tory MP was elected in Halifax was in 1983 (and before that 1959). Which was, of course, the last time the Leader of the Opposition was as unpopular as Corbyn, with a left-wing policy manifesto to match. If May gets the Brexit bounce she expects, even bigger northern targets could fall.
2) THE QUEEN IS DEAD, LONG LIVE THE QUEEN
The ‘President May’ strategy was fully on show as the PM took the stage. The Cabinet were in front of her, not alongside her, reduced to spectators as much as the rest of us. Tory handlers were so reluctant to allow any contact between the media and the Cabinet that there was even a ‘buffer zone’ of several rows of Tory activists placed between us. After the event was over, ministers were whisked away before any microphones could be shoved in their faces.
May’s speech was crammed full of ‘May too-ism’, repeating “the Government I lead” again and again, as well as other me-myself-I lines like “every vote for me and my team”, “join me on this journey”, “come with me as I lead Britain” “stand with me as I deliver for Britain”.
In the questions afterwards, she was asked several times if this manifesto – with its stress on state intervention and limits to markets – was a rejection of Thatcherism. Her line “There is no ‘Mayism’, there is good solid Conservatism” gave a nice soundbite for the TV news, but no one believed her. The very word ‘Conservative’ has been reduced to the small print (literally on leaflets and her battlebus), while her own political vision has been put in banner headlines.
And the manifesto itself makes plain she is trying to place her tanks firmly on the centre ground, or her version of it. One of the most fascinating sections of the 84-page document is this sentence: “Rather than pursue an agenda based on the supposed centre ground defined and established by elites in Westminster, we will govern in the interests of the mainstream of the British public”.
That sounded like a UKIP-lite attempt to define herself as the pre-eminent anti-globalisation, pro-Brexit, anti-elitist politician of our times. It’s also a message that explains just why UKIP is all but dead.
Thatcher herself won big majorities by redefining what ‘the centre’ meant. And despite ducking the question today, May’s version of the centre is not Mrs T’s. The manifesto rejects “the ideological templates provided by the socialist left and the libertarian right and instead embrace the mainstream view that recognises the good that government can do”. That’s a long, long way from Thatcherism (and Reaganism). And in case we didn’t get the message, the manifesto added: “we do not believe in untrammeled free markets, we reject the cult of selfish individualism”.
In her speech she slammed “rip-off” energy tariffs, attacked “the privileged few” and vowed to tackle injustices based on “race, gender, mental health or disability”. Fifteen years after May first denounced ‘the nasty party’, itself a less than veiled reference to the excesses of Thatcherism, the message to fellow Conservatives was clear: we’ll do it my way.
3) JUNK CHOP
If May has tried to shy away from Thatcher’s legacy, she has positively buried David Cameron’s. In many ways, the 2017 Tory manifesto feels like the PM trying to free herself from the shackles of the Cameron-Osborne years.
She has junked lots of her predecessors’ straightjackets: the tax lock that rule out rises in income tax, VAT and national insurance (itself a classic Cameroonian wheeze dreamed up simply to fill a media ‘grid’); the “triple lock” that guaranteed pensions went up 2.5% every year; a universal winter fuel allowance for pensioners (a Gordon Brown ploy that Cameron refused to tackle).
Buried in the manifesto is the blink-and-you-miss-it line about aiming for “a balanced budget by the middle of the next decade”. In 2010, Osborne promised to wipe the deficit by 2015. That was put back to 2020. Then Philip Hammond suggested in his last Budget it would slip to 2022. And now it looks like we will next be in the black by 2025. That’s a weaker trajectory than anything Ed Balls suggested, but it gives May some invaluable headroom in case there are new economic shocks.
Plenty of other policies are binned or trimmed, from a redefinition of the 0.7% aid target (to include military spending inevitably and maybe even some Eastern European subsidy) to axeing a Cameron pledge to “eliminate” child poverty (not exactly a ‘mainstream’ aim?) And it what seems like a trolling of the Cameroon era, May even vows to reform the honours system that the ex-PM debased when he sprinkled knighthoods, CBEs and peerages on his cronies before qutting No.10 last year.
Perhaps the most intriguing of all the breaks with the past is on the oil industry. North Sea oil provided Thatcher with invaluable income during the 1980s, but May has a big plan to decommission the industry on a grand scale – making the UK into a world leader in dismantling oil rigs.
4) BREXIT MEAN TIME
May's much-derided 'Brexit means Brexit' catchphrase did actually mean something valuable to many Leave voters: a reassurance that what they voted for would actually happen.
Curiously, however, given its supreme importance in this election, May’s manifesto tells us absolutely nothing more about her plans for quitting the EU in 2019. With all the zealotry of a Remainer convert to the Leaver cause, she chanted the Brexit mantra today with a pledge to “take control of our money, take control of our borders and take control of our laws”. Yet the vague lines about ‘new rules’ for EU migration remain just that, vague.
The manifesto repeats her White Paper promise to leave the EU single market. Some Remainers who want a ‘soft’ Brexit may try to draw comfort from the way May listed her priorities, with Brexit coming second to “the need for a strong economy”.
Yet she offered them little comfort when I asked her if David Cameron was “deluded” to think that the bigger her majority, the stronger her hand in facing down her party in getting a deal that was not a ‘hard’ Brexit. She airily dismissed any distinctions on our quitting the EU, from soft-boiled to half-baked. Still, she did smuggle into the small print a line that Britain is prepared to pay a "reasonable" contribution to the EU divorce bill, an amount described as a "fair settlement". The size of that will prove crucial in keeping Brexit voters onside.
For now, it seems the PM’s main hope in avoiding any ‘betrayal’ narrative over Brexit is to repeat the infamous Tory pledge to cut net migration under 100,000 a year. She couldn’t answer obvious questions about just how many billions in lost economic output such a cut would cost (the CBI warned her levy on firms hiring foreigners was May’s ‘Achilles heel’. Instead, it seems almost as if the global migration target is a shield against any accusations of backsliding on EU migration.
In fact there was a shocking absence of any real costings in the manifesto. Aides simply said crunchy detail would be answered in the usual way in ‘Budgets’ and autumn statements. The blithe, bordering on arrogant, assumption was that the party would back in power soon enough and we could get all our answers then.
At least May did warn that the road ahead could bumpy. “The next five years will be among the most challenging in our lifetime,” she said. Even the dark blue cover of her manifesto does not feature any smiling pictures of her or her Cabinet as Cameron’s did. It instead looked like funeral parlour handbook. The message seemed to be: there could be grim times ahead – but it will be worth it.
Which brings me back to those repeated references to acting in “the interests of the mainstream of the British public”, and how “my mainstream government will deliver for mainstream Britain”. I remember in 1996 a new group was founded to promote centre ground Tory policies with a strong pro-EU message. Its chair was a certain Damian Green (close ally and longtime friend of the PM). Its name? “Conservative Mainstream”. Plus ca change…
5) GENERATION GAME
May deserves credit for sketching out some of the big challenges facing any government right now, from the ageing population to the looming inter-generational inequalities as younger people miss out on things like their own home, secure work or secure pensions.
The decision to admit defeat on school cuts, shelving the schools funding formula and pumping £4bn into the classroom, was necessary and overdue. The figure of £8bn for the NHS ensures that spending will rise per head until 2022, a big win for chief executive Simon Stevens, though aides were strangely unforthcoming about how much “new” money that entailed. It will be front-loaded but could be mere hundreds of millions, not billions, in extra cash.
Even more odd was the fact that the PM trumpeted “the most ambitious programme of investment in technology and buildings the NHS has ever seen”, without any price tag at all, let alone how any explanation of how it will be paid for. Surely not through borrowing? With this PM, even that’s possible.
Axeing benefits-for-all like free school meals and winter fuel allowance (the latter raking in a huge £1.7bn by restricting it to the very poorest) certainly offers a clear difference with Corbyn’s own universalism. It remains to be seen just how wise it was to unveil a big policy on social care, which could hit many families hard.
But speaking of generations, the most chilling line for Labour MPs in the entire speech today was May’s claim that it offered “a vision for Britain – not just for the next five years, but for the years and decades beyond”.
Thatcher tempted fate by talking about going “on and on”. The new Queen of the Eurosceptics clearly thinks she will be an historic premier in her own right. And this manifesto may be just her first.
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