The UK election: not following the script

After our previous essay on the UK’s election campaign (“The politics of Nostalgia”, 14.05.17), one of our readers wrote to say that we should have waited until the parties’ manifestos had been published.  “It may confirm your worst fears”, he said, “or set out a new direction of travel”.

What prescient words.  For seldom in recent years can a manifesto have had as much influence on an election campaign as the Conservative one has this time.  There may have been a time – before sound-bite politics, carefully constructed public images for the party leaders and 24‑hour news – when manifestos were read diligently, influential in shaping the debate and instrumental in helping the electorate decide how to vote.  But in recent elections they have been almost entirely peripheral, one-day news items almost never considered in depth or even referred to much after their launch.  As one commentator put it “Never have so many documents been printed to be read by so few”.

But not this year. It would be fair to say that the Conservative proposals, and specifically their proposals for the funding of social care for elderly people in their own homes, have radically changed the public’s perception of the Conservative party and especially of its leader, Theresa May, and may well also have materially changed the election from the expected Tory landslide to a much closer race in which there has even been talk about the possibility of a hung parliament.

This was not meant to happen.  Mrs May called the election as a personal decision, and throughout, she has been the central focus of the government’s campaign, seeking a very personal mandate and positioning herself as the “strong and stable leader”.  She has declined to spell out too many specific policies, claiming that she did not want her hands tied, and in essence, her campaign has boiled down to the two words “trust me”.

Which is why the furore that erupted when the party’s manifesto was published was so damaging.  Because what the electorate saw was very far from the trustworthy and honest, strong and stable leader she claims to be.  Firstly, she came across as secretive – the social care funding policy was not discussed with her cabinet colleagues before being included in the manifesto, not even the health secretary Jeremy Hunt (whose department social care comes under) or the chancellor Philip Hammond (whose department oversees taxation and expenditure).

Secondly, she came across as shallow in her analysis.  The policy may make sense in itself, and may even if slightly better presented have avoided quite so much criticism, but it does not fit easily with existing Conservative policy, especially the party’s stance on Inheritance Tax (IHT).

Firstly it is difficult to square the statement that “£100,000 is a perfectly adequate inheritance for most people” – as ministers were forced to claim in defence of the manifesto – with the current policy of actively raising the IHT threshold from its current £325,000 “so that ordinary people don’t need to sell their homes”, which was their policy coming into the election (and, as far as Philip Hammond knows, still is).  And secondly, it has the surprising consequence that a person with an estate worth many millions in effect pays only 60% of his or her care costs (because every pound paid reduces their estate for IHT and so saves 40% tax), while someone with an estate worth just £150,000 pays 100% of his or her care costs (because the estate is too small for IHT so no IHT is saved).

Unintended consequences perhaps.  But both indicate policy-making on the hoof, without the proper analysis that considered debate with her colleagues would have allowed.  And when her critics pointed this out, she backtracked very fast, and then compounded the damage by incongruously claiming that she had not.  And her carefully constructed image of “strong and stable” began to disintegrate in front of the electorate’s eyes.

Seldom can a politician’s public image have fallen so fast – indeed perhaps not since Anthony Eden’s fall from grace in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis 60 years ago.

If the failure of her proposals on social care were revealing of a brittle prime minister, the response of the government to its rapidly reducing lead in the polls was equally significant.  For the Conservatives reverted to the politics of fear, branding Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as a bogeyman and latterly concentrating almost their entire campaign not on what they would do if elected, but on what their opponents might if they were not.

The politics of fear has worked in the past – it was effective in defeating the Scottish Nationalists’ bid for independence in 2014 and it gave David Cameron a surprise victory in the 2015 general election.  But it is significant that it totally failed in the EU referendum last year, and it does not seem to be working in this election either.  And it is worth spending a moment thinking why this might be.

There are a number of sentiments that drive voters and help determine how they will vote.  The first, and most basic, is Hope – hope for a better future, hope that society’s problems will be solved.  The second, closely connected with Hope, is Fear – fear that if the result goes the wrong way, disaster (either personal or more generally) will follow.  Hope and Fear are the traditional sentiments that govern the democratic process;  they dominated the two sides in both the Scottish independence campaign and the 2015 general election, and as usual in such circumstances, Fear proved the stronger in both cases.

But there is a third sentiment, which is Anger.  Anger is even stronger than Hope or Fear, because it can transcend rationality, and is therefore difficult to reason with or oppose.  It was Anger that drove much of the Leave campaign in last year’s EU referendum – anger at immigration, anger at the perceived flaws in and cost of the EU, anger at the elite who seemed to have sidestepped most of the consequences of the Financial Crisis.  And Anger duly beat Fear, and David Cameron’s Remain campaign, based as it was almost exclusively on Fear, floundered and failed.

And this election?  In our view the predominant sentiment in much of the electorate today is Distrust.   There is a cynicism and a lack of trust in all politicians and all politics – the lies are too great, the deceptions too frequent, the inability to address Britain’s problems too blatant.  Only Thursday will show whether Distrust is stronger than Fear, but all the signs are that despite her obvious competence, Theresa May has forfeited much of the electorate’s trust and is suffering for it, while despite his extreme policies, Jeremy Corbyn has retained and even enhanced his reputation as an authentic voice who holds to his beliefs and means what he says and has benefitted.

Given this widespread distrust of the political class en masse, Mrs May was perhaps ill‑advised to make the election too much a question of the electorate’s trust in her personally, and her policy of saying nothing at all about her approach to the Brexit negotiations – the existential question facing the country – beyond the trite sound-bites of “Brexit means Brexit” and “No deal is better than a bad deal” is in danger of looking not statesmanlike but evasive.  She has not had a good campaign and she does not emerge from it with her reputation enhanced.

Having said that, though, as we write (four days before polling day) she is still probably favourite to win the majority, and mandate, she asked for.   However the question we asked at the end of our previous essay remains unanswered:  “Given the many major issues facing the country, if we give you this mandate, what exactly are you going to do with it?”