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.

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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.