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18 May 2017updated 06 Jan 2020 3:12pm

Theresa May’s manifesto: a mixture of the dangerous, the calculated and the brave

The Conservatives' pledges on social care are genuinely redistributive - but they may struggle in the Commons. 

By Stephen Bush

Theresa May is up north to launch the Conservative manifesto today, but some of the contents have been announced early.

Here are the big items, in reverse order of surprise factor: the target to get net immigration to Britain down to the tens of thousands lives! If achieved, it would create a black hole far larger than anything contained in the Labour and the Liberal Democrat manifestos – the OBR put the cost of even a fall of 80,000, light years away from the target, at an extra £6bn worth of borrowing a year – but the PM is genuinely committed to it, so in it goes.

What a lot of analyses of the pledge are missing is this, however: when May was at the Home Office, her feeling there was that the target could be met provided that Downing Street stopped giving into special pleading from other government departments. We should take this pledge a great deal more seriously – and expect it to be pursued more relentlessly – than when it was a tactical wheeze of David Cameron and George Osborne.

Slightly more surprising is the commitment to scrap universal free school meals at primary school and replace them with free school breakfasts. The measure will save money as the original policy committed schools to “hot” meals which meant greater outlay on kitchens and so on. As far as the election goes, it may be the most significant pledge in the short-term. It also allows the Conservatives to cancel their planned changes to the school funding formula. A glance at the average Labour MP’s Facebook feed should give you a clue as to why – many are effectively running single issue campaigns against the planned cuts to their local schools. (It’s not just Labour MPs, either – in a slightly surreal development, education minister Edward Timpson is campaigning against the changes, too.

But the biggest and most surprising announcement is about social care. People will have to pay the cost of their own care until their assets are below £100,000, although they will be able to defer the sale of their homes until after they die.  It’s a hugely radical and progressive change to the system. To give you an idea of the scale of the change, the plan is close to identical to the one that Andy Burnham proposed in 2010, but minus the concessions Labour chucked in as part of a failed attempt to secure cross-party agreement on care.

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Frankly if Labour did it, the Mail‘s splash would just be a series of asterisks and an exclamation mark. Here’s their splash: “You Won’t Have To Sell Home To Pay For Your Care”. (Provided that your house isn’t worth more than £100,000 doesn’t seem to have made it onto the frontpage. Perhaps there wasn’t space.)

It is a huge shift away from the Cameron-era approach of building Conservative majorities on the back of ever-increasing redistribution from the old, who vote in great numbers and are more well-distributed across the country, and away from the young, who vote less and are clustered together in fewer seats.

Of course, May has a special place in the Mail’s heart and the record-breaking disapproval ratings that Jeremy Corbyn has with the elderly ought to inoculate her against any electoral backlash.

There’s a “but” coming, and it’s a big one: even with the thumping majority suggested by the polls, can they do it, really? I may be talking to an unrepresentative sample of Conservative candidates, but the new intake in the party’s target seats look to be drawn from across the Tory firmament. They haven’t been selected for loyalty to Mayism, though of course most know what an asset she is on the doorstep. But there are many more orthodox Conservatives than there are true believers in May’s new model Conservatism.

Yes, the care crisis has grown more acute since David Cameron branded Labour’s plans a “death tax”. But even with a landslide majority Margaret Thatcher couldn’t touch Sunday trading and came a cropper over the poll tax. Even a Conservative government with a triple-digit majority may find it harder than we expect to make every pensioner in London sell their home to pay for the cost of their care.