The launch of the 2017 manifesto haunts Conservatives. It was Theresa May’s social care policy surprise and her disastrous reaction to the furore that followed which precipitated the election slipping away from the Tories.
The row drew voters’ attention to the former prime minister’s character flaws, showing that what seemed like reticence was in fact furtiveness; her toughness was inflexibility and her leadership was entirely uncollegiate. Voters not only disliked the policy; it persuaded many of them to dislike her.
This is not a mistake her successor Boris Johnson was likely to repeat. Sitting on a healthy opinion poll lead, the Conservative 2019 campaign has been a game of defence with a few counter-attacks. This manifesto is likewise designed to emphasise the core messages and offer no new hostage to fortune.
One former Tory manifesto writer observed that if the document is still being discussed two days on, then you are in trouble. It is safe to say there is no risk of that in Mr Johnson’s case. While Mrs May, confident of a large victory, sought the electorate’s blessing for some contentious policies, Mr Johnson just wants its blessing.
The headline news from the launch — albeit blurted out early — is tax freezes and a modest cut to national insurance. It is striking, however, that earlier plans for personal tax cuts for higher earners are left out in favour of spending promises on public services. With Labour depicting the Tories as a party of the rich, Mr Johnson is not offering up new avenues of attack.
At a time of immense suspicion of political promises, and with Mr Johnson not exactly enjoying high levels of personal trust, the manifesto makes few big pledges beyond the headline commitments of delivering Brexit and more funds for schools, the NHS and the police. The strategy is to talk about little but these and then focus on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Social care itself is once again pushed down the road, but with a £5bn sticking plaster to avert an immediate crisis. It is hardly the stuff of leadership but this is a no-surprises strategy. On any issue with cut-through, be it NHS parking charges or childcare costs, the party is promising just enough to show it is listening. The pledge to recruit 50,000 more nurses and 6,000 doctors, like the promise of 20,000 new police officers, is designed to be a totemic show of support for public services.
The other overwhelming aim is to portray a mainstream party that is focused on the priorities of ordinary voters and — after Brexit — rooted in the political centre-ground. Of course, there is no “after Brexit” normality to which politics will return. Under a Johnson government the issue would continue to dominate politics — even as time runs out on trade negotiations after the unequivocal promise that the Tories will not extend the implementation period to secure a deal beyond the end of 2020.
This is the manifesto’s one huge hostage to fortune, but the risk will come only after a victory. The threat to the economy from such a hardline position is very real but the pledge will ensure that Brexit party voters are not scared off which, for now, is what matters to Tory strategists.
The Conservatives are in the lead and the clock is ticking. Every day without an error is a win. Every day not spent talking about Labour priorities is a day closer to victory.
This should be the week Labour starts to close the gap on the Tories; the Liberal Democrat vote would be squeezed and Conservatives would start to get nervous. That may yet happen, but so far there is little to alarm Mr Johnson’s hard-nosed strategists. This manifesto launch confirms that so far the election is running along the lines Tory strategists hoped.