Why the Conservative manifesto isn’t truly “safety-first”

Boris Johnson, like David Cameron before him, might live to regret neglecting the question of what happens after the election. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

A spectre is haunting the Conservative Party – the spectre of the 2017 general election. That’s why its manifesto, released yesterday, is so thin and so laser-focused on winning on 12 December.

Value-added tax, income tax and national insurance will not rise throughout the next parliament. In addition, the national insurance threshold will be increased to £9,500, while the triple lock on pensions will remain untouched. A “points-based” immigration system will be introduced after Brexit. HS2, Heathrow, and social care will be decided by reviews once the election is safely over. £500m a year will be spent on repairing potholes, the most visible sign for most Conservative voters of a neglected public realm. There are pledges for more cash for nurses, housing, and the police, albeit ones that at an extra £3bn a year are far short of matching the £95bn worth of extra spending planned by Labour. And the promise of a free vote on fox hunting, a mainstay of Conservative manifestos of the recent past, has been junked.

It has fewer policy announcements than the average budget and what little is in it is calibrated around doing whatever it takes to win the election. It’s highly reminiscent of Philip Hammond’s last budget: the biggest winners are people in the top 15 per cent of earners, but it was this group – middle to upper management, school headteachers and department heads, lawyers, doctors and senior academics, largely in their 30s and 40s – who decisively swung away from the Conservatives at the last  election. Most of the spending announcements are either focussed on giving them more money, like that increase in the national insurance threshold, or on tackling the bits of austerity they are most likely to notice, like that £500m per year fund to tackle potholes.

A risk-free manifesto? Sure, if the only available risks are the ones that popped up in 2017. But the Conservative leadership seems to have forgotten just why they had an election in June 2017. It wasn’t, despite what Theresa May claimed, a Brexit vote that made her decide she had to go to the country early. It was her inability to get her Budget through without political calamity. Why was getting a budget through so difficult? Because she inherited a popular but impractical set of manifesto pledges from David Cameron and George Osborne.

The Conservatives, are, let’s not forget, promising: a) a form of Brexit that will end British manufacturing as we know it and have radical implications for the United Kingdom’s economic model, b) for income tax, national insurance, and VAT to remain flat or falling, c) to have reduced debt as a share of UK GDP by 2024 and plan to fund all of this through corporation tax and by extending NHS charges on visa applications for EEA nationals.

“Safety first” is the message that the Tories want the media to repeat and voters to take from the manifesto. But this isn’t a “safety first” manifesto – it is, albeit in a very different way, every bit as transformative a programme as Labour’s, but where Labour think their interests are best served by talking up how radical they are, the Conservatives think their aims are better served by stealth.

Are they right? Well, if the polls are even close to accurate, yes. But in office, something is going to have to give here, and while Theresa May showed that there are risks in writing a manifesto and forgetting the voters, Boris Johnson might, like David Cameron before him, live to regret neglecting the question of what happens after.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.