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24 November 2019updated 08 Jul 2021 12:15pm

Why the Conservative manifesto says so little

By Patrick Maguire

This morning Michael Gove told Andrew Marr that Boris Johnson’s election campaign was likely to end as Stanley Baldwin’s did in 1924 with a landslide victory over Labour. But the relatively threadbare policy offer in the Conservative manifesto launched by the prime minister in Telford this afternoon has rather more in common with Baldwin’s pitch in 1929: safety first.

The big pledges? No increase in income tax, National Insurance or VAT over the lifetime of the next parliament; an increase to the income threshold at which employees start paying National Insurance contributions to £9,500; the retention of the energy price cap, triple lock on pensions, winter fuel allowance and free bus passes; at least 31,000 new nurses, free hospital parking for night shift workers and the families of the terminally ill; and a new £2 billion fund for potholes.

Commitments to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and a new £3 billion fund for adult skills education also feature, as do the three central planks of Johnson’s policy offer to date: 20,000 new police officers, increased schools and NHS funding, and, of course, his withdrawal agreement (which, if the Conservatives win a majority, will be reintroduced to the Commons before Christmas). On Brexit, there is an optimistic pledge to negotiate a trade deal with the EU by the end of 2020, and new free trade deals with the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Japan within three years. And that’s about it. 

Thatcherism on steroids it isn’t. In fact, it is rather difficult to ascribe any meaningful political label to the manifesto at all. Yes, it proposes £3 billion in new current spending but, compared to the £95 billion promised by Labour, it is small beer. That there is no policy on social care beyond a commitment to seek cross-party consensus partly explains that. The 59 pages are a pitch for continuity, rather than change. It makes for a stark many Tories would say helpfully stark difference with Labour’s bold offer.

Nor are there sweeping tax cuts, despite what Johnson told his audience in the West Midlands this afternoon. Previous promises to cut inheritance tax and raise the threshold for the top rate of income tax have been junked. His modest cut in National Insurance  equivalent to £85 a week for most workers – stands alone, a play for the votes of those on low incomes. Indeed, both the change to the NI regime and the increase in spending have been made possible by Johnson’s failure to cut corporation tax, which has freed up £6 billion. There is really next to nothing to substantiate the prime minister’s insistence to the Daily Telegraph that his “tax-cutting zeal” remains undimmed.

Why the caution? It is to a large extent a response to Theresa May’s disastrous 2017 manifesto, whose toxic policy on social care the so-called dementia tax is credited with derailing her campaign. That document has been mythologised among survivors of that campaign to the same extent as the Labour manifesto of the same year. It was always inevitable that this year’s manifesto would have been planned as 2017’s opposite, and so it proved. Rather than alienating the Conservative core vote  as the dementia tax did, and as Telegraph political editor Gordon Rayner told Johnson the absence of tax cuts in this year’s offer might  a conscious effort has been made to reassure it on tax, pensions and Brexit.

Yet despite the absence of any attempt to radically transform the state or economy, Conservatives candidates taking a longer view are still hopeful that this manifesto will, in time, enable them to do so – and not just via Brexit. If Johnson wins a majority, the boundary review – which will reduce the number of parliamentary constituencies to 600  will go ahead, as will plans to give UK expatriates an indefinite right to vote. In private, optimistic Tories will tell you that this manifesto will not only deliver them victory this time, but an electoral map and franchise that will make it much easier for them to keep winning.

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