Boris Johnson knows he’s close to losing this election – that’s the real reason the Tory manifesto is so weak

The prime minister is trying to have it both ways. He would like a ‘Brexit election’, but with little opportunity to win back the public’s trust, he’s chosen the safe option instead

Andrew Grice
Sunday 24 November 2019 19:16
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Tory manifesto: Boris Johnson fails to commit to long-term social care plan after 'dementia tax' backlash

“This is a new government,” Boris Johnson said as he launched the Conservatives’ manifesto today. It was a revealing comment. He wants voters to think he offers the change they want, so they don’t have to gamble on Jeremy Corbyn’s radical “real change”.

By referring to his 120 days as prime minister, Johnson invites people to believe that nine years of Tory rule have nothing to do with him even though he has been an MP for half of the austerity era that began in 2010. (The man David Cameron once called a “greased piglet” got away with it again on the BBC’s Question Time on Friday, when Jo Swinson unfairly had a much harder time on austerity because of the Liberal Democrats’ role in the coalition).

There was more clear blue water between Johnson and his Tory predecessors today. Theresa May’s 2017 programme proved the maxim that manifestos rarely win elections, but can lose them. Her document was the turning point two years ago. Her U-turn over social care reforms dubbed a “dementia tax” transformed her from “strong and stable” to “weak and wobbly.”

The contrast with Johnson’s safety first manifesto is stark. “She gave us a handbook for how not to do it,” one Tory insider told me. “We went over and over the drafts with a fine-tooth comb. Anything that might distract from the main message was taken out.”

Under May, Downing Street kept its manifesto cards very close to its chest. The only cabinet minister to see the whole document was her chancellor, Philip Hammond; some ministers read it only as they travelled to the launch event. This time, ministers were more involved. The manifesto themes were well-trailed in advance: “get Brexit done” and then we can invest in public services. In contrast, May did not prepare the ground for her social care proposals; when they came under fire, even she struggled to explain them.

Johnson went to the other end of the spectrum on social care. Boldness has been replaced by caution. His promise in July to “fix” the crisis has been conveniently forgotten. Ministers insist he would not leave the issue in the long grass and would address it urgently after the election if he retains power. But more detail now would have been welcome.

To her credit, May tackled the issue of well-off older people getting state help by proposing to end the “triple lock” guarantee on the state pension and to limit winter fuel payments. No such risks from Johnson: pensioners’ perks (apart from free TV licences for the over-75s) are set in stone.

In 2017, May did not include the cost of her pledges in her manifesto. Cleverly, Labour costed its proposals, changing places with the flat-footed Tories, whose mistake meant they could not attack “the cost of Corbyn”. Labour feared the Tories would attempt to attach a £1 trillion price tag, but it never happened.

At this election, however, Johnson is making it up; his modest manifesto pledges are costed and he used his launch speech to reiterate the Tories’ claim, made before they had seen Labour’s programme, that it would cost £1.2 trillion.

In 2017, May was ahead in the opinion polls when she unveiled her blueprint. Johnson has no intention of jeopardising the solid lead he currently enjoys, and so produced a risk-averse manifesto designed not to frighten the horses. Team Boris won’t lose much sleep if the manifesto is seen as cautious; it hopes voters will think the pledges are credible and contrast with a long Labour wish list that some will judge too good to be true.

Inevitably, Johnson is trying to have it both ways. Under pressure from the chancellor, Sajid Javid, he has shelved some planned tax cuts and spending rises – notably his Tory leadership election pledge to raise the threshold for the 40p tax rate from £50,000 to £80,000. He wants the credit for splashing the cash on “the people’s priorities” such as the NHS, schools and the police, while ensuring there is still a clear dividing line with Labour on fiscal responsibility.

Like May two years ago, Johnson would like a “Brexit election”, but he now knows he is not going to get one. May misjudged the public mood on austerity. Johnson has found the “magic money tree”, but is much less generous than Corbyn in distributing its fruits.

Johnson knows that both he and his party have a trust problem on public services. Some voters might judge that much of the Tories’ extra spending will not go far enough in addressing the problems caused by their own cuts – notably in the Labour-held, Leave-voting seats in the north and midlands Johnson is targeting, several of which have rarely (if ever) returned a Tory MP. After nine years of austerity, voters there may be less inclined to regard Johnson’s government as “new” than he wishes.

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