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May reverses stance as labour gains in polls

May 22 2017 15:26
Robert Hutton, Tim Ross and Svenja O'Donnell, Bloomberg

London - Theresa May backed down over one of the central pledges of her election campaign only four days after announcing it, following polls that showed the opposition Labour Party gaining ground on her Conservatives.

A plan to make elderly people pay for the costs of their own care until their total assets fell to £100 000 will now be altered so that there is a cap on what they pay. Speaking to supporters in Wales, May was unable to say what this limit would be.

May strenuously denied that this was a change of position, and blamed the unpopularity of the policy on “fake claims” about it by Labour, who had branded it a “dementia tax.” When the policy was announced, Tory officials were insistent that there wasn’t going to be a cap.

On Sunday, three cabinet ministers including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson all defended the previous policy in interviews without mentioning the possibility of a cap.

“Nothing has changed, nothing has changed,” May told reporters in Wrexham after announcing the change. “We are offering a long-term solution for the sustainability of social care in this country.”

Polls in recent days have shown Labour reducing the Tory lead, though May is still clearly ahead. May’s decision to shift course might reduce the damage from the policy itself, but it risks undermining her central election message, that she’s a “strong and stable” leader who is a tough negotiator.

Weak and wobbly?

“This is weak and unstable leadership,” said  Andrew Gwynne, Labour’s Election co-ordinator. “If this is how they handle their own manifesto, how will they cope with the Brexit negotiations?”

This is only the latest occasion when May has reversed course after sending ministers out to defend the old position. In March she dropped an increase in tax on self-employed people a week after Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond announced it in his Budget.

Although the prime minister insisted that the party’s manifesto had left open the possibility of a cap on costs, a press release sent by the Conservatives explaining their plans ruled one out. The policy, it said, was “fairer and more equitable” than the cap that was proposed by a 2010 independent review of care costs. 

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, speaking about the idea of a cap on costs on the day the manifesto was published, said the Conservatives were “being completely explicit in our manifesto that we’re dropping it.”

The question now is whether May’s change of course is taken by voters as a willingness to be flexible or as weakness in the face of adversity.

"I don’t think it’s very damaging,” said Matt Beech, director of the Center for British Politics at the University of Hull. “It’s a smart move because it’s at this stage. She has done it in time. A week before the election it would be damaging.”

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