Two big things are going on at the same time. The first is a no-nonsense Conservative election campaign designed to deliver Theresa May a three-figure parliamentary majority and reduce the Labour Party to rubble. The second is the publication of the notoriously secretive Mrs May’s programme for government, designed to give her a mandate for a new kind of Conservatism – not the trendy metropolitanism of David Cameron’s Notting Hill set and not the restless free market economics of Margaret Thatcher.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the two are coming into conflict.
The campaign is the creature of Sir Lynton Crosby, the straight-talking Australian election guru, who believes in devising a clear simple message that frames the overall contest and then sticking to it through thick and thin. Crosby’s message, based on endless polling and focus groups, is that May beats Jeremy Corbyn hands down. So, when voters go to the ballot box on June 8, if they think this is all about who should be the next Prime Minister, they will vote Conservative in droves.
Crosby is bidding to boil the vote down to “strong and stable leadership” (May) versus “coalition of chaos” (Corbyn). Define the question that way, define May as the warrior Queen standing up for Britain against the scheming Europeans, and Corbyn as the mad Marxist (Groucho as well as Karl) who would sell out the country through a combination of incompetence and disloyalty – and you have the much desired Tory landslide. The relentless focus on May’s supposed leadership qualities, the constant talk of “Theresa May’s team” rather than the Conservative Party, is all about reducing a general election involving tens of millions of people and thousands of candidates and issues to one simple proposition – it’s got to be May; Corbyn is a malevolent joke.
To a degree, the Conservative manifesto is intended to reinforce this proposition. To the delight of cartoonists and commentators (see the cover of the latest Spectator), it is being caricatured as continuity Miliband – stuffed full of leftist notions that would have Mrs Thatcher spinning in her grave: an energy cap, more wage controls, workers on company boards, the threat of higher taxes, curbs on the pay of company bosses, the gender pay gap, higher spending and debt…the list goes on – all underpinned by the profoundly un-Thatcherite notion that government is a force for good and that untrammelled free markets, selfish individualism and inequality have no place in the Tory creed (Who said they did? Only the Left.) Rigid dogma and ideology are not just needless but dangerous.
The intention is clear. May is targeting the Labour heartlands to secure her landslide. The Tory shires are in the bag – the challenge is to scoop up Labour votes in the north (the manifesto was launched in Halifax) so our “strong and stable” Prime Minister sallies forth armed with Labour-piercing ammunition.
Yet there is more to Mrs May’s manifesto than inducements to Labour voters. She is also signalling a break with the Cameron past, not least by abandoning such seductive but flawed PR gimmicks as the tax and pensions locks. On top of that, she has risked alienating the pensioner vote (a critical part of the Tories’ core support) by pledging to means test winter fuel payments and – more hazardously – to overhaul the financing of social care in a way that will increase the burden on southern shire Tories while easing it for northern erstwhile Labour supporters.
Launching a big new policy proposal in the stormy weather of an election campaign is always ill-advised. Better to roll the pitch well in advance, as Mr Cameron was wont to say. John Major and then Welfare Secretary Peter Lilley tried last-ditch innovation with a perfectly sensible overhaul of the state pension in the 1997 contest and were predictably gunned down by Tony Blair and his gang, who demonised the plan for the young to pay into a pension fund by telling the old that the hated Tories were going to rob them of their only source of income. It was a lie, of course, but it is hard to rebut lies in the fog of war.
With polls showing a slight narrowing of the Tory lead, mainly down to Corbyn’s success in firing up his base with his Venezuelan manifesto, this weekend saw the first signs of a Tory wobble. Thatcher suffered a similar hiccup in the 1987 campaign that ended with her securing a majority of 100.
Crosby needs to remind May of this precedent. More importantly, he needs to get the campaign off social care and back onto his core theme: May versus Corbyn – and who is best equipped to face down Brussels.
He will succeed in that goal. The real storm clouds lie on the distant horizon, not so much over Brexit as over Mrs May’s infatuation with the State, her dirigiste instincts and her failure to heed Maggie’s most enduring dictum – you cannot buck the market.
(Image: University of Salford)