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Theresa May accused of dishonesty over 'dementia tax' U-turn amid campaign disarray

'Now you’re going to have a cap. You need to be honest, I would suggest, and tell the British people you’ve changed your mind'

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Tuesday 23 May 2017 06:28 BST
Theresa May dodges questions on NI, NHS funding, dementia tax and fuel allowance

A rattled Theresa May is facing damaging accusations of dishonesty after her humiliating U-turn on "dementia tax" left the Conservative election campaign in disarray.

In an evasive TV interview, the Prime Minister was asked three times why she was not being “honest” about her decision to agree to a cap on care costs – four days after her manifesto ruled it out.

Today marked the first time that the Prime Minister’s character has become an issue in the election campaign, raising its head after the Tory lead narrowed to single digits in several polls.

Furthermore, she repeatedly refused to answer the crucial question of the level of any care cap – at one point referring to the policy as a “concept”.

In an extraordinary day, which brought the campaign to life, Ms May notably lost her cool as she ripped up her social care policy after just four days, speaking in front of Welsh Conservatives in Wrexham.

She said the Conservatives would introduce a cap on lifetime care costs – having insisted, when unveiling her manifesto, that one was not needed to protect older people from catastrophic care costs.

The climbdown came after Conservative candidates warned the policy was hugely unpopular on the doorstep and after it was widely branded a “dementia tax”.

Without a cap, once set at £72,000 by David Cameron, the homes of people in residential care with long-term conditions would have to be sold to pay their bills, after their deaths.

For the first time, it would include property-owning pensioners who receive care in their own homes – while cancer patients, for example, treated in hospital, receive free care.

In Wrexham, a clearly flustered Ms May refused to accept she was performing a U-turn, at one point telling reporters: “Nothing has changed, nothing has changed.”

Instead, she accused Jeremy Corbyn of resorting to “fake claims, fear and scaremongering” over the impact of her plans – forcing her to “clarify” them.

Insisting they remained “good and sensible plans”, Ms May confirmed the U-turn by saying a consultation “will include an absolute limit on the amount that people have to pay for their care costs”.

Later, the BBC’s Andrew Neil told her: “Your manifesto rejects a cap, it gives a reason why you don’t want a cap. Now you’re going to have a cap.

“You need to be honest, I would suggest, and tell the British people you’ve changed your mind.”

Ms May insisted: “I’m being absolutely honest with the British people about the big challenge that we face. And absolutely honest with them about the need for us to deal with this now, to start fixing it now.”

Earlier, Ed Miliband tweeted: “This is now a character issue, as well as a care issue. When PM says 'nothing has changed' she is lying. If she lies about this what else?”

Former Tory ministers who spoke with The Independent strongly criticised the Prime Minister’s handling of the issue – some suggesting her U-turn had come too late to avoid damage.

General Election Round-up: May 22

One said: “Hopefully it will recede in people’s minds, but some colleagues are concerned that postal vote papers were already starting to go out at the weekend.

“Will the change be too late for those who send their postal votes back straight away?”

A second said: “The damage has been done. The minute a doorstep conversation has to get into detail it's a problem. A campaign is not the time for detail.”

And a third former minister said: “The announcement was very badly handled. It needed more preparation, rather than trying to do it in the middle of an election campaign.”

The Alzheimer’s Society expressed relief that all parties were now committed to a cap on care costs, but said only knowing the level of the cap would ease anxiety.

“It is essential that we see action straight away. Over the last ten years, we have seen almost as many consultations, so the issue can no longer be kicked down the road,” said Rob Burley, the society’s director of policy.

The Liberal Democrats accused Mrs May of “panic”, while Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said her government was mired in "chaos and confusion".

Speaking with The Independent in Yorkshire, Mr Corbyn attacked the Conservative social care policy as “irresponsible, unfair and unpleasant”.

“This is a proposal that really needs to be just dropped all together,” the Labour leader said. “We're proposing to put £2bn into social care immediately to plug the current gap and make sure there is funding there for the future.”

It was pointed out the Conservative policy could still result in elderly people being asked to stump up six-figure sums for lengthy and complex care for conditions such as dementia, if the cap was set too high.

A few weeks ago, the Tories were believed to be considering a cap of around £85,000 – already significantly higher than the £72,000 passed into law, but delayed, by Mr Cameron.

The U-turn also appears to blow a hole in Tory sums for easing the more immediate social care crisis, affecting the day-to-day care provided by local councils.

Labour put the cost of a cap and providing state help to people with more assets – up to £100,000 in the Conservative plan – at £3bn a year. Ms May’s proposals will only raise around £2bn a year.

In the BBC interview, the Prime Minister said she had “clarified” her policy because Mr Corbyn was misleading vulnerable people about it in order to “sneak into No 10”.

Mr Neil replied: “So Jeremy Corbyn is now rewriting your manifesto? That’s what it sounds like. You’ve reacted to him.”

Ms May also revealed she planned to spend £10bn on new hospital buildings and technology, having earlier promised “the most ambitious programme” in NHS history.

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