Will the coalition waste this chance to reform social care?

Osborne must not be allowed to strangle Dilnot's proposals at birth.

It was as long ago as 1997 that Tony Blair told the Labour Party conference: "I don't want [our children] brought up in a country where the only way pensioners can get long-term care is by selling their home." Nearly 14 years later, however, more than 20,000 pensioners do exactly this every year.

The publication of the Dilnot Report provides the coalition with a chance to succeed where Labour failed and reach agreement on a long-term solution to the care crisis. As expected, Dilnot, the former director of the IFS, has proposed a cap of around £35,000 on care costs (the report suggests any figure between £25,000 and £50,000 would be acceptable), and a rise in the means-tested threshold from £23,250 to £100,000. Since the cap does not take into account the cost of food and accommodation, Dilnot has also called for a separate cap of between £7,000 and £10,000 on these "hotel costs".

His proposals have been erroneously portrayed by some as another "tax on the middle classes". But the reverse is true. Under Dilnot's plan, the middle classes will pay less (the average bill is currently £50,300, with one in five facing costs of £100,000), while the state pays more. A £50,000 cap would cost the government £1.3bn, while a £25,000 cap would cost £2.2bn.

It's for this reason that some are already suggesting that the government, in the form of George Osborne, will strangle the proposals "at birth". One cabinet minister tells Benedict Brogan: "It's DOA, there's no doubt about it ... At a time like this we simply can't afford it. We'll have to return to this issue at a future date." To which one can only reply: hogwash. Any new system is unlikely to come into effect until 2015, by which time, if Osborne's calculations are to believed, much of the deficit will have been eradicated. Short-term fiscal considerations must not act as a barrier to long-term reform. The Lib Dems' imaginative proposal to introduce capital gains tax on profits from first homes above £1m is just one example of how the state could raise more from the asset rich.

The coalition also has rare opportunity to forge a cross-party consensus on this issue. The last attempt to do so was, of course, destroyed by the Tories, who cynically attacked Andy Burnham's proposed compulsory levy as a "death tax". Despite the Tories' electioneering, however, Ed Miliband, has made a "genuine and open" offer to reach agreement. It is one David Cameron must take. Along with Miliband, every charity in the land is agreed that delay is no longer an option.

Asked earlier today what his response would be if the proposals were "kicked into the long grass", Dilnot rightly replied: "Astonishment". The longer ministers prevaricate, the worse the crisis will get. If the Lib Dems want a chance to prove that they can exercise real influence on government policy, here it is.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories