Theresa May Faces the Chill Wind Following a Disastrous Manifesto Launch
by Joud Halawani Al-Tamimi and Raneem Hanoush
During a 5-day walking holiday in the mountains of Snowdonia, Prime Minister Theresa May arrived at the decision to call for a snap general election; shocking Britain out of its Easter reverie a few days later. Her announcement came after the Prime Minister repeatedly confirmed that no election will be held before 2020. Justifying the sudden U-turn- which would not be her last- May claimed that divisions at Westminster would undermine Brexit negotiations. She said she wanted “unity” at Westminster prior to Brexit talks with the European Union.
Looking at the polls and the results of local and parliamentary by-elections, Theresa May and the Tories anticipated a landslide victory. The past two months, however, have not been easy on May, and the battle for number 10 continues to take unexpected turns. While the Prime Minister had her feet in cold water just a few weeks ago, her confidence is starting to fade as growing evidence shows that her decision has backfired.
Things started going downhill with the disastrous Tory manifesto launch. Confident that they would win the elections, the Tories did not bother to include full costings for their manifesto. This raised many questions in the media and amongst the public surrounding their plans for social spending. The Tories became vulnerable to claims that their plans would harm millions of people, as they would not provide information on how their plans would actually work.
With regard to the winter fuel allowance, for example, expert opinion including that of Resolution Foundation states that the mere viable way to implement means testing is by restricting benefits to pensioners who get pension credit. Otherwise, the process would incur large administrative costs and would provide very limited scope for savings. Still, implementing this method of means testing means that five out of six pensioners (equal to 10 million people) would lose out. The Tories have defended their plan saying they would not let this happen and that they intend to devise a new means test that excludes smaller numbers from benefits. But they provided no further information, seeking instead to draft the new rules in a Green Paper, that they would discuss the means of implementing after they win the elections. This failure to give details on issues that are key to the electorate raised suspicions surrounding the Tories’ true intentions.
The lack of transparency was exacerbated with the “dementia tax” controversy, which denotes the Tories’ plan, whereby elderly people needing care are expected to pay potentially unlimited amounts from their estate for it. It was dubbed “dementia tax” by the Labour as it is likely to have the biggest impact on people with a chronic disease.
Following the public outcry against this policy, Theresa May made things worse by taking a U-turn, as she announced that there will be “an absolute limit” on how much more the elderly will be expected to pay for their care. It is widely thought to be the first time a party leader eliminates a key manifesto policy in the middle of a campaign. And yet again, May provided no information on how much more people will be expected to pay with a cap in place. This last minute change of heart on the part of the Prime Minister largely undermined her claim to “strong and stable leadership”, which her whole campaign was built around.
Labour’s Barbara Keeley, the shadow social care minister said: “What people need is certainty, so they can know how their future care needs will be met. What the Tories are delivering is chaos, confusion and indecision over the funding of care. The Tories were going to introduce a cap on care costs in April 2016, then in April 2020 and now they are talking of a green paper, which is another delaying tactic.” Meanwhile, Lib Dems criticised the Tories for what they thought was a “manifesto meltdown.”
“Nothing has changed, nothing has changed” – the “basic principles” of the policy were unchanged” May repeatedly said to reporters. But it seems Theresa May is whistling in the dark, and her claims were met with little belief and disdain. Moreover, May’s pledge to hold a free vote on bringing back foxhunting, made things worse as it agitated animal charities and rights groups around the country.
LABOUR ON THE WARPATH
Meanwhile, Labour released a manifesto that was the most precise and clear on spending in all of labour’s modern history. Showing their sums at their launch earlier, they were clearly on the warpath.
The manifesto is a big break with the recent past, and offers a palpable alternative to continued austerity. It reintroduces basic social democratic policies to the arena, delivering decent public services and a programme for reducing inequality. Expanding the limits of the the thinkable in British politics, Labour promises a popular program of mass nationalization, increased expenditure on the NHS, the elimination of tuition fees, a rise in taxes for the country’s rich and scrapping the public sector pay gap. These are popular policies that many people will like. Moreover, the manifesto is particularly stronger on education and families with young children.
Still, Labour and their manifesto invited criticism from the media. The Independent reports that despite Jeremy Corbyn’s “host of practical ideas” to improve living standards for of the majority of Britons, “he has a tin ear to the real concerns of the British electorate” as opposed to May who “has channeled their very real concerns into a set of election-winning policies with little risk of reprisal.” Regarding the manifesto, The Guardian claims “its weakness is that it does too little to make the thinkable seem realistic and practical.” Meanwhile, the Mirror warns from the “likelihood” that “Labour’s attractive manifesto will remain on a shelf gathering dust after June 8” and claims that Corbyn’s “faults and damaging party splits” are real setbacks. Similarly, The Telegraph dubs the Labour Manifesto a “socialist agenda” and accuses Corbyn of taking Britain “back to the 1970s.” The newspaper also criticises Corbyn for being “soft on defense, law and order and migration.” But despite these attacks, the Labour manifesto was indeed a game changer for Corbyn.
CORBYN NARROWS MAY’S LEAD
The impact the manifestos have had on the elections is manifest in a series of polls that suggest that the Tory lead over Labour has halved since the two parties released their manifestos. Particularly alarming for the Tories, a poll by YouGov suggested the gap between the Labour and Tories has not only shrank but that it has come down to only five points compared to a 24-point initial lead for the Conservatives, stirring anxiety amongst the previously self-assured Tories. This coincided with an astounding contraction in the approval ratings of Corbyn and Theresa May. The 52-point gap with YouGov at the start of the campaign dramatically fell to just four points last week.
“YouGov showed how Labour’s best policies are cutting through compared to the worst of the Conservatives’ policies,” said Matt Zarb-Cousin, a leading supporter and former Corbyn spokesman.
SECURITY DOMINATES CAMPAIGNING POST MANCHESTER ATTACK
Yet, after a promising return of Labour signified in the markedly improving performance in the polls, the Manchester attack happened. Accordingly, the national conversation shifted away from the U-turn by Mrs. May on social policy.
Debbie Hicks, a labour official in Stroud, invited controversy for noting “I cannot help thinking this is wonderful timing for Theresa May.” However, he was voicing a widely held assumption amongst Tory and Labour campaigners: that the atrocities in Manchester would be in May’s advantage, given her position as home secretary for six years before becoming prime minister and the prevalent perception amongst the public that she is knowledgeable and comfortable with security, policing and terrorism.
“It changes the narrative completely, at least for a time” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “It’s almost bound to play to the strengths of an incumbent prime minister, especially one responsible, in her previous job for security.”
Following the Manchester attack, “security will be more prominent on people’s minds,” said Steve Fielding, a professor of political history at the University of Nottingham. “We don’t know how prominent, or for how long, but it will be closer to the front of important issues.”
However, Tony Travers, a professor of government at the London School of Economics believes that “the Manchester attack will tend to fade in people’s minds before they actually vote.” He added that “the underlying forces that produce general election results are years in the making and are rarely affected by what happens in campaigns.”
Professor Bale agreed, making reference to the murder of anti-Brexit MP, Jo Cox, shortly before the Brexit referendum. He noted that unlike popular expectations, the event did not substantially affect the vote.
“It’s very easy to see these absolutely terrible events as game changers, but they rarely are,” he noted. “And partly, sadly, because they’re more common than they used to be.”
Indeed, the most recent polls have shown that Labour continued to do better in the race for Downing Street despite the attacks. But if history has taught us anything, it is that polls are volatile and are not to be taken for granted. Even if we are to consider them seriously, it is not yet obvious from the numbers that a Tory landslide is off limits. However, it seems that while it is still likely, it is certainly not the landslide that May had initially anticipated.