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A Tory manifesto to inspire? Never in a month of Sundays

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WHAT was the Conservative Party thinking of, launching its election manifesto on a Sunday? What image was it attempting to portray? What made the Tories do it – or did they not even consider it an issue?

They have been in government since 2010, nine years during which the UK has seen a further decline in moral, cultural and Christian values, further social breakdown and disorder.  

So you’d be forgiven for thinking that launching their ‘Let’s get Brexit done’ manifesto on what should be ‘Never on a Sunday’ was a deliberate attempt to rub traditional noses in it.  It showed not just a disrespect for the Christian day of rest, but an active promotion of opposite values. 

It may be of course that so immersed were they in their alternative agendas that it didn’t even occur that it was tasteless, that Sunday is meant to be different.  It is also possible, even more cynically, that they thought Sunday was a good day to bury their decidedly sparse manifesto. 

It reminded me of the ‘losing the way’ theme of the Greek book and film Never on Sunday – essentially about the conflict between Melina Mercouri’s hooker with a heart of gold and Jules Dassin’s classical scholar who attempts to steer her into the path of morality – a metaphor that might equally be applied to the present-day Conservative Party.

Much awaited, the manifesto gave little to take away in the form of an uplifting message. Like a poor-quality sermon, it pontificated, took up time, but contained nothing of substance. If its aim was to leave you with a favourable impression of the deliverer, the result was to leave the recipient wondering if actually anything of value had been said.

It added little to recent policy announcements made since September, which can be summed up as attempts to make up for the years of so-called austerity. Apart from making the right noises on crime, the police, housing, education and on health, it begged the question of whether any of these funding pledges will make the slightest difference to the underlying and chronic structural and cultural problems.

The triple-lock commitment to not raising income tax, National Insurance contributions or VAT did sound good, as did the commitment to reduce NIC contributions for some. But it left open the question of the feasibility of all this.

Though the previous commitment to reduce corporation tax was abandoned, the question of how these pledges tally with the future funding of public services that the party promises without further taxation will not go away.

Where is the realism? Bearing in mind the new Care for the Elderly policy has yet to formulated, it would appear to be impossible to implement this without significant rises in taxation or NIC.  For instance, the very successful plan which has been working in Guernsey since 2003 involves a 1.9 per cent increase in NIC, as well as additional government funding. 

Do the Conservatives, in their belated realisation that social care cannot be ignored, intend to introduce a variation of the Theresa May scheme, which took the Tories into an electoral nosedive in the 2017 election? Given what the key Conservative social care advocate, MP Damian Green, had to say at the recent party conference, there seems cause for concern.

The commitments on cutting carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 may be superficially commendable aspirations, but they are irresponsible in practice in terms of energy supply and costs – as Ruth Lea has set out with devastating clarity in a number of TCW articles.

Like the other parties’ climate policy commitments, they are futile and unaffordable and will hit the poorest hardest.

The view that any party not making similar green commitments risks losing votes is open to dispute. Polls have to be looked at for what they don’t say – which is that climate is not necessarily high on the voters’ agenda.

The manifesto contains a commitment to cutting taxes for small businesses, but how effective is this and what will the small print reveal? 

Likewise, the commitment to cutting business rates in the High Street may just be too little, too late. This raises the question of whether the Conservatives are just too timid to tackle the long-overdue ending of the unfair and bureaucratic domestic and business rates in the country. 

As for the housing crisis, yes there is a commitment to build more homes, but nothing really radical with this policy and no acknowledgement of the part played by immigrant-driven population expansion in this ongoing excess of demand over supply.

As for immigration, the points-based system is also dependent on our departure from the EU, which, even with Boris’s ‘deal,’ leaves the UK very much tied in for some years to come.

Nor does it begin to address the unsustainability of a net migration annual figure the size of a city, let alone face the Border Force build-up and determination required to get illegal immigration under control.  

Yet the resources of the country simply cannot cope with such numbers, and if it continues, the funds given to the NHS and every other public service will have to be vastly increased.

One policy that stands out is the commitment to recruit 50,000 nurses. But on examination it turns out that a lot of this is on nurse retention and bringing in foreign nurses, less than on what is really needed, which is a mammoth increase in nurse training – regarding which, bringing back nurses’ bursaries is indeed a positive move.

The manifesto was so sparse in new initiatives that when even a small piece of joy was announced, it stood out. Yet the £500million promised for filling in potholes, so very much needed, just will not be enough even to cover the cracks.

Another piece of ‘good’ news that turned out not really to be so was the announcement that some categories of people going to hospitals will not have to pay car parking charges. It’s tinkering with the problem and too cumbersome and too bureaucratic to implement in a fair way.

The commitment made to investing in the country’s infrastructure and in developing our manufacturing potential is of course welcome. But this needs more money from the Government, and cannot be dependent on the private sector alone. 

Abandoning HS2, as the Brexit Party suggests, is one way to pay for such investment and would be a good start. But no mention of that was made at the Telford launch, even though the Conservatives could put some blue water between themselves and Labour (and the Lib Dems ) committed to draining more public funds down this bottomless pit.

The emphasis on ‘One Nation Conservatives’ is designed to appeal to those who want a fairer and more united UK. But many of us are fed up to the back teeth with the constant whingeing of Plaid Cymru in Wales, the SNP in Scotland and the Sinn Fein separatists in Northern Ireland.

Standing up for a united, not a divided, kingdom needs stating too.  It would help the Conservatives if they’d support equal treatment for England, giving it the free prescriptions already enjoyed in all the other home countries.

Finally, back to the banner pledge of ‘getting Brexit done’, and the Tories’ promise that they can get on with the other issues once it is done. Whilst this may appeal to those who’d now accept almost any Brexit outcome as long as the UK appears to leave, the risk Boris runs is if the public start to realise before December 12 that this is but Part One of the exit. 

For, despite all the Conservative candidates signing up to Boris’s ‘deal’, it is questionable how quickly the requisite free trade agreement within this 90 per cent May BRINO can be done, if at all. Will the country find itself facing yet another cliff edge? 

The Toris are fortunate to have Labour’s logic-defying, inconsistent and incredible Brexit stance to take advantage of. With the country pretty much against the idea of a second referendum, Boris Johnson’s criticisms of Labour’s Brexit policy are perfectly justified. 

What stands out is the very sparsity of the manifesto (59 pages,  including many pictures) compared with the 107-page Labour effort, mirrored by its  smaller public spending bribes compared to Labour’s.

Though his pledges are unfundable without huge borrowing, Boris still risks coming over as parsimonious compared with munificent Jeremy.  It’s a pothole of the Tories’ very own making and what comes of joining in an arms race of public spending promises.

If the electorate see only ‘less than Labour’ rather than ‘safer than Labour’ and begin to think Brexit might not be done after all, then the general election results could well be not what the Conservatives hope for.

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Anthony Webber
Anthony Webber
Anthony Webber is an independent political commentator and strategist

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