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Can the Tories really underpromise in their manifesto and overdeliver in government?

25 November 2019

10:08 AM

25 November 2019

10:08 AM

Boris Johnson is today launching the Welsh Conservatives’ manifesto. For the Tories, this event comes with a trigger warning: it was where Theresa May defended her party’s social care U-turn in 2017 after its disastrous manifesto launch. The clip of her insisting that ‘nothing has changed’ became one of the defining moments of the election campaign.

So far, it seems that today’s Welsh event won’t be quite so dramatic, which is just what the Conservatives wanted. They have devoted an entire page of their 2019 manifesto to social care, but what it amounts to is little more than thin air. It even promises to search for a ‘cross-party consensus’, which is something politicians of all hues have spent the past two decades trying and failing to reach. The manifesto as a whole has been described by Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies as ‘modest’, and though it is supposed to help voters see what life after Brexit might be like, it offers only the most fleeting of glimpses.


This low-ambition manifesto is another learned lesson from 2017. Tory campaign sources say that one of the less-noticed problems with May’s manifesto – and indeed with her pitch on the steps of Downing Street on becoming Prime Minister – was that she set out every single thing she wanted to achieve, which made her failure to do very much all the more obvious when her tenure came to an end. This time, the party wanted to ‘underpromise and overdeliver’. Social care campaigners will be hoping their sector is included in this and that there is a plan waiting to go after the election that the Conservatives just couldn’t face including in the manifesto.

But the reality is that even if Johnson does succeed with his pre-Christmas Brexit vote and even if Britain does leave the European Union on 31 January, there is still a good chance that quite small domestic ambitions are subsumed by the work on Britain’s new trading relationship with Europe and other countries – as well as any unintended consequences of the Brexit deal itself once implemented. The departments with some of the biggest ambitions, including the Home Office, also have to implement big Brexit-related changes, such as a new immigration system. It will be very easy for the focus on law and order to drop simply because there isn’t enough bandwidth. But all that is a matter for after the election. Right now, all the Conservatives care about is that they don’t accidentally scare the voters with just under three weeks to go until polling day.


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