Sometimes events put politics on hold. Sadly, this week was one of those times. Following the Manchester Arena terrorist attack on Monday, the leaders of the main parties rightly took the decision to suspend campaigning activity until yesterday. Josh Lambkin gives his take on a shortened week of election campaigning.
The attack has undoubtedly changed the tone of the campaign over the past few days. The week began with a fiery debate about social care reform, following a dramatic U-turn from the Prime Minister, and it ended with solemnity. Events continue to unfold and the Government still faces a number of sizeable challenges, but what’s certain is that the campaign will take on a different feeling to before.
However, from a purely political perspective, it is important that we don’t overlook one of the most significant points of the election campaign so far: the social care U-turn. To the electorate, this may have seemed like a wonkish episode but it touches on a major societal problem which policymakers face. The Prime Minister’s decision to change tack reveals a fragment of her vision for the future and even more about how this might be received by her party.
When your key message in an election campaign is “strong and stable leadership”, justified accusations of “chaos, confusion and indecision” are incredibly problematic. Yet this was what the Prime Minister faced throughout Monday after announcing changes to her plans for social care funding, departing from those first set out in the party’s manifesto. This was a problem of her own making and no doubt the most difficult day of her campaign so far.
The policy in the manifesto pledged to use accumulated asset wealth to fund the spiraling costs of residential social care. For a Conservative leader, this was not only a bold proposal but a huge gamble. It was an attempt to redress inter-generational inequality by challenging the sanctity of property wealth – a principle that strikes at the core of traditional conservative ideology.
Theresa May’s decision to row back on this policy a mere four days later, by promising a cap on the amount people will have to pay, is damaging for the campaign but it also raises more fundamental questions about her leadership. This policy was probably the closest glimpse we are going to get of “May-ism” – a proposal which Tory radical and hero of Nick Timothy, Joseph Chamberlain would have been proud of – and it didn’t go down well. The Prime Minister would not have expected rapturous applause from the Tory base for this policy but the hostility it provoked from even the most supportive elements of the media and the divisions it revealed in her party will be a serious cause for concern going forward.
Recent events obviously mean that this U-Turn has been forgotten for the moment. But the appalling events of this week have the potential to amplify issues between now and polling day as well as skew them. Voters will of course be rightly concerned about national and personal safety and the received wisdom is that this feeling will benefit the Conservatives. This is probably true to an extent. But the emerging sense of solidarity across the country this week could equally lead voters to judge more harshly any proposals which threaten societal cohesion and judge more favourably those messages which emphasise unity. Actively using the events of this week for political gain would be toxic but that’s not to say there won’t be a passive effect on the electorate. Either way, the parties will be walking a tightrope from now on.