Boris Johnson’s Manifesto Isn’t Transformational. But That’s The Whole Point

Pitched as safe as watching Antiques Roadshow on a soggy Sunday. Tory prospectus plots evolution not revolution.

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Captain Sensible

Theresa May’s manifesto launch two years ago was famously the moment her election campaign imploded. After unveiling her ‘dementia tax’ plans in a marginal Labour seat in West Yorkshire, her poll lead began to evaporate. Instead of gaining seats, she ended up losing them. A few weeks later, her majority went up in smoke.‌

Every Tory is still scarred by the experience. And, for all his British bulldog bonhomie, Boris Johnson is no exception. So, when it came to his own manifesto launch today (in a marginal Tory seat), caution was the watchword. After May’s hubris in Halifax, what we got was temperance in Telford.

Even the timing of the launch, on a soggy Sunday with the public’s attention elsewhere, felt deliberately low-key, and risk-free. Johnson’s speech was short (a mere 15 minutes) and his manifesto was brief too (59 pages and many of those had big print and big photos). Its contents were as safe as an episode of Antiques Roadshow. What was remarkable was how unremarkable it was.

Johnson twice used the phrase “sensible, moderate One Nation Conservatism”. Sensible is not a word you’d normally associate with the self-styled swashbuckler of the Tory party. If felt like this great gambler, having bet his career on a December election, was doing everything he could to avoid any slip-ups that could leave him as one of the shortest-lived prime ministers in our history.

In spending terms, this blueprint for government paled in comparison to Labour’s splurge. It would increase spending by a mere £2.9bn per year by 2023-24 (Labour’s plan is for £82.9bn over the same period). Compared to recent Tory administrations, there would be more borrowing and more state intervention. The IFS called the fiscal plans “very modest” and the whole thing felt like an Autumn Statement rather than a vision of sunlit uplands.‌

On the toxic topic of social care, there was no detail at all, despite the fact that this is a huge generational challenge and despite Johnson’s famous summer pledge (“I am announcing now – on the steps of Downing Street – that we will fix the crisis in social care once and for all with a clear plan we have prepared.) The tax cuts were tepid and the childcare offer was timid. Aides said that only £22bn out of their £100bn ‘headroom’ for spending has been allocated, and hinted more was to come. But no one was splashing the cash today.

Johnson himself tried to claim his would be “a new government, a very active and dynamic government”. Yet when you flick through his blueprint for government for the next five years, this doesn’t feel like a new departure from the May or Cameron eras. In fact, it feels like what it is: a third-term Tory administration that is not exactly brimming with ideas.

Yes more cash for potholes is important, but it still sounded as exciting as John Major’s motorway cones hotline. The ‘Australian-style points-based immigration system’ had virtually no detail. There’s no big bang to tackle the housing crisis, and (as future generations may remember most of all) nothing radical to tackle the climate emergency.

The contrast between the piecemal prospectus today and Johnson’s usual flamboyant rhetorical flourishes was striking. On today’s evidence, to paraphrase the insult once lobbed at Clement Attlee, he’s an immodest man with much to be modest about.

Of course, Johnson is undeniably a better salesman than May ever was. The usual gags were there (“let’s go carbon neutral by 2050 and Corbyn neutral by Christmas!” “Bonjour monsieur Corbyn comment allez vous?”), plus the linguistic gymnastics (in Telford 200 years ago “the phlegethontian fires of Coalbrookdale created the first industrial revolution”). There was also some neat phrasemaking (“from free trade to free speech to the freedom to love whomsoever you choose”).

He even tried his best to do The Vision Thing. “I want you to imagine what the country could be like in just 10 years,” he said. In fact he said “in ten years’ time” (scientists would benefit from more R&D cash, we’d have 40 new hospitals, the UK would still be the UK) so many times that it felt like this was a prospectus for a two-term, not a one-term, prime minister.

One reason Johnson likes talking about the future is because it’s so much easier for him than talking about the past. Holding an election before delivering Brexit has turned out to be an inspired move, simultaneously keeping attention on Corbyn’s confusing position while stressing only the Tories can get it ‘done’.

As many times as he says he’s only been PM for three months, in many places the manifesto only reverses cuts made in the past 10 years. From replacing 20,000 police officers to restoring the student nurse bursary, Johnson is hoping the public will forget he signed up to austerity as both an MP and as a member of the Cabinet. His sense of political responsibility feels like a Westminster remix of Shaggy’s ‘It Wasn’t Me’. Vowing never to extend the UK’s transition period beyond 2020 may prove to be a mistake, but that’s not his pressing concern. Winning this election is.

Simon Fletcher, Ken Livingstone’s former chief of staff, is someone who knows better than most how effective Johnson is as a politician. He warned earlier this year that Johnson “will obfuscate, avoid accountability, brazenly steal policies, play to the gallery and close down as many attack lines as he can”. And the Tory 2019 manifesto does all of those things.

It steals policies like free hospital parking (both from Labour itself and Tory backbencher Rob Halfon) and more nurses, albeit watered down version of both. It plays to the gallery on immigration and crime. It tries to shut down the NHS and schools cuts rows that caused Tories to lose seats two years ago. As with the Boris Bus £350m pledge, there’s less to many of the promises than meets the eye (50,000 ‘more nurses’ turns out to include current staff, just like 40 new hospitals means six fully funded projects).

Two years ago, Theresa May got indignant when asked whether her manifesto was a variation of Thatcherism. “There is no May-ism,” she said sternly. There is no ‘Boris-ism’ either. In fact the phrase is used to describe his one-liners, his scripted ‘unscripted’ gaffes, his un-PC jokes, rather than a political philosophy.

But if there is a Johnson-ism, it’s as old as conservatism itself: a belief that Britons prefer evolution to revolution.

The Conservative party also has a knack for renewing itself in office as well as out of it. Johnson chose the seat of Leave-voting Telford today because it is a marginal the Tories hope to turn into a safe seat. But he also hopes to take nearby Labour seats in Stoke, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Wolverhampton and West Bromwich.

That’s the most important point about the Tory manifesto. It’s not transformational, it’s transactional. It offers an ‘oven ready’ Brexit to Labour Leavers, ‘no extension’ to Nigel Farage and slowly-does-it spending for everyone tired of austerity. And for a nation exhausted by the past three years, and those who just want to get on with their Christmas shopping, it may work.

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Sunday’s Election Cheat Sheet

Boris Johnson unveiled the Conservatives’ 2019 general election manifesto.

Chancellor Sajid Javid said of a UK-EU trade deal “we can get that deal done certainly by the end of next year, of that I have no doubt”.‌

Labour announced a £58bn pledge to compensate ‘Waspi’ women affected by the decision to raise the pension age from 60 to 66. It was not in the party’s manifesto but John McDonnell said he’d been working on the policy for some time.

DUP leader Arlene Foster told the Press Association her party could work with Labour if it ditched Jeremy Corbyn and “someone else is leading” the party instead.

Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson said “Boris Johnson is on course to get a majority” and her party was the only way of getting a hung parliament.

Asked if scrapping the Trident nuclear deterrent would be a red line for the SNP to support Labour, Nicola Sturgeon told SkyNews: “Yes”, adding her party would be “absolutely firm” on that.

A Panelbase/Sunday Times poll put Labour on just 20% in Scotland, suggesting it would be reduced to just one MP: Ian Murray, a frequent Corbyn critic.

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