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13 July 2017

The problem with Theresa May’s vision for the “just about managing“? She didn’t have one

The phrase turned out to mean almost nothing.

By Stephen Bush

Happy anniversary, Prime Minister! And what better way to celebrate it than with a copy of the NS? “The Maybot malfunctions” is our cover story – and the subject of my column, too.

The PM has chosen to mark the anniversary with a sit-down interview with the Sun‘s Tom Newton Dunn. Among the headlines: her plea to be allowed to remain in place for the “next few years” to get on with the job of negotiating Brexit.

But the meat of the interview is her account of what she thinks went wrong: that the election campaign didn’t focus on her vision of what the country should be – to help out the “just about managing”.

The difficulty with that diagnosis is, when you look at the rest of the Conservative manifesto – minus the dementia tax, the fox hunting, the ivory ban, the cuts to school lunches and the other self-inflicted wounds – it’s hard to stand up the idea there was some vision for the “just about managing” in there. Say what you like about, say, Help to Buy and its wider consequences on Britain’s overheated housing market, but it did at least offer something to boomer landlords and upwardly mobile dual-earner couples, two essential pillars of the Cameron electoral coalition both of which went elsewhere under Theresa May.

The political strength of that “just about managing” brand is that it can mean almost anyone: from those “just about managing” to make rent to “just about managing” to get a takeaway at the end of the week to “just about managing” to pay for private schools. But its political weakness was that it turned out to mean almost nobody.

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The difficult truth is that if May had a vision for the just about managing, she’d be able to offer a series of popular measures that would, at the least, be politically painful for Labour to oppose and might save her reputation. But she doesn’t, so she can’t. 

Instead, all she’ll leave her eventual successor is an insight that is essentially correct but didn’t go anywhere: that a society in which a decreasing number of people feel any stake or security will take increasingly radical political turns, be they for Brexit or Corbynism.