Pundits and pollsters have spent the last year trying to explain what the Brexit vote meant. Was it right-wing or left-wing? Was it about immigration or sovereignty? Was it a bit racist? They’ll do the same for this election – trying to pinpoint where it all went so humiliatingly wrong for Theresa May.
But to me one answer, even so soon after shock result – and before we’ve been able fully to analyse the results – stands out by a mile: the dementia tax. There are five reasons, I’d argue, why it ruined Theresa May’s election campaign and may have been the key factor in destroying her parliamentary majority.
1. It was a ‘nasty party’ policy
Theresa May once understood, in 2002, that for many British voters the Conservatives are ‘the nasty party’. She warned Tories then that they would only convince them this wasn’t true ‘by avoiding behaviour and attitudes that play into the hands of our opponents’.
The dementia tax – by which homeowners, especially in the south of England, would pay an almost unlimited amount of money for long-term care – was exactly that. It seemed too random, too cruel for those with serious long-term illnesses like dementia, and too risky for individuals, despite the admittedly massive hole in social care funding. There would be no pooled risk; just a devastating personal lottery. Even for young voters and voters with lower assets, the policy caught the imagination and seemed brutal, perhaps confirming their worst fears about the Conservatives.
2. The dementia tax U-turn destroyed May’s image
Then came the U-turn. There is a school of thought that these don’t matter as much to voters as political journalists think. James Kirkup has argued this forcefully. But this was the first major U-turn by a party leader on a key manifesto pledge – well, possibly ever in British political history. And Theresa May’s campaign was intensely personal (a ‘cult of no personality’ is Dominic Lawson’s brilliant line). It was all about providing, as many people got sick of hearing, ‘strong and stable leadership’. The fact that she caved so quickly after this policy’s critical reception destroyed that idea. Labour scented blood. And when May claimed, in shrill tones afterwards, that ‘nothing’ had changed, she seemed to take the voters for fools.
3. The dementia tax came from nowhere
The was an intriguing report in the FT at the time that the policy had been inserted into the manifesto very late on by Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s chief of staff.
This has been confirmed. A report in today’s Times by Francis Elliot says:
The voters, and Conservative activists, were baffled by it too. It bombed on the doorstep, as I reported here, making a U-turn much more likely. No one could explain it.
By the way, I have yet to hear any decent explanation of how a floor (of presumably £100k in assets) and a cap on the costs of care (of what? £70k?) will work together in practice. That sounds very expensive for the taxpayer.
4. It was an austerity policy
A simple point, this: in the context of a campaign that focused on the economy, the deficit, and the risks of Labour’s promised spending increases, the policy might have made more sense. It was brutal, but there could have been a serious argument to be made: working-age taxpayers should not have to fork out for ‘rich’ elderly people’s care. But because, as James noted yesterday, the Tories took the deficit off the table as an issue, the dementia tax quickly came to symbolise a wantonly cruel approach. The voters, even those who wouldn’t be directly affected by the policy, woke up to that.
5. It handed the momentum to Jeremy Corbyn
In a post-election Question Time special on Friday night, Alastair Campbell said: ‘It was the social care policy that made the wheels come off the campaign.’ He was spot on. Just look at the graph above. Corbyn was having a good campaign by the time of the U-turn on 22 May. But there was a clear acceleration in the decline of the Conservative lead after that point. We now know the polls overestimated the Tory lead – so in reality, the effect of the dementia tax may have been much worse, and much more significant, for Theresa May and the Conservatives.
Nick Timothy has resigned and, in a blog post on ConHome, comments:
I take responsibility for my part in this election campaign, which was the oversight of our policy programme. In particular, I regret the decision not to include in the manifesto a ceiling as well as a floor in our proposal to help meet the increasing cost of social care. But I would like to make clear that the bizarre media reports about my own role in the policy’s inclusion are wrong: it had been the subject of many months of work within Whitehall, and it was not my personal pet project. I chose not to rebut these reports as they were published, as to have done so would have been a distraction for the campaign. But I take responsibility for the content of the whole manifesto, which I continue to believe is an honest and strong programme for government.
So not a ‘pet project’. But does his statement mean that the policy was one of a number of options presented to No 10 by civil servants? He may still be to blame for choosing the wrong one, and insisting on it in the face of opposition within No 10. I suspect we’ll find out more very soon.