A mainstream manifesto
Theresa May today pointedly described the document she launched as “my manifesto”. She explained that the mass of ordinary British people are “not ideological” and do not hold with “grand visions”. That certainly seems true of the Prime Minister.
Her proposed programme for government is lengthier than many expected and covers a wide range of areas. It has the feel of a pic ‘n’ mix manifesto, but one which contains bold elements. It is presented as the basis for a ‘mainstream government that would deliver for mainstream Britain’.
Manifesto commitments at a glance:
Investing an extra £8bn into the NHS
Scrapping the triple-lock on the state pension after 2020
Means testing winter fuel payments
Raising cost of care threshold from £23,000 to £100,000 and including the value of home in calculation of assets for home care in addition to residential care
Cutting net migration down to the tens of thousands
Increasing the amount levied on firms who employ non-EU migrant workers
Increasing the overall schools budget by £4 billion by 2022
Scrapping free school lunches for infants in England and instead offering free breakfasts across primary school pupils
Scrapping the Fixed-Term Parliament Act and extending first past the post to mayoral and police and crime commissioner elections
Entitled Forward, Together it identifies ‘Five Giant Challenges’ that confront Britain today: the need for a strong economy; Brexit; social division; an ageing society; and fast-changing technology. These challenges, and the proposed responses, are perhaps best understood through prism of the EU referendum and Theresa May’s reaction to it. While May tentatively backed Remain ahead of the poll, she and her team quickly concluded that the Leave vote was a popular howl against the inequities and unwanted social consequences of globalisation – in particular against mass immigration.
Hence the opportunity to ditch immigration targets, which many of her senior colleagues would like to do, is passed up. Instead the target to reduce immigration to tens of thousands does not just remain – it is joined by proposals to double the business cost of recruiting overseas workers.
Such policies are fundamental to the political outlook of Theresa May and her closest advisers, who are driven by a powerful desire to support ordinary working families in the face of headwinds created by globalisation.
That desire is evident in the form of proposals to cut energy costs, increase wages, tackle excessive executive pay and introduce new workers’ rights. It is further reflected in measures that seek to more heavily scrutinise foreign takeovers, regulate the digital economy and impose new burdens on big technology companies. In other measures, notably on cyber security, the enduring influence of years spent in the Home Office may be seen.
Deficit reduction plans have formally been put back to 2025; though they were already moving in that direction. The shift will provide leeway to carry on with promised reductions to corporation tax and increases in the income tax thresholds.
It also helps to provide some space for significant additional spending in the NHS (£8bn over five years) and in education, where the schools funding formula will be changed the overall schools budget increased by £4bn by 2022. The ban on selective schooling will also be lifted.
The triple tax lock, however, is ditched. As May has already ruled out any rise in VAT or income tax this parliament, another tilt at increasing National Insurance seems likely.
May has been brave in the area of social care, seizing her moment of maximum political authority to announce plans to protect the final £100,000 of pensioner wealth for those who need long term care, funded in part by cuts to the winter fuel allowance. The manifesto also signals the removal of the triple lock on pensions.
Looming large above all these domestic concerns is Brexit, which is curiously listed as second among the five giant challenges. It is in reality the overriding priority and will dominate the May government in ways that will sharply squeeze the political and legislative room for other action.
The manifesto restates May’s earlier assertions that Brexit means coming out of membership of the single market and the customs union. She underlined that at the manifesto launch, stressing that Britain “cannot be half-in, half-out of Europe”.
But she also repeated her desire to reach a deal with the EU on future relations and in that vein perhaps the single most important line in the manifesto is that which states: “We will determine a fair settlement of the UK’s rights and obligations as a departing member state, in accordance with the law and in the spirit of the UK’s continuing partnership with the EU.”
That provides the PM with an electoral mandate to agree a Brexit divorce bill, binding upon Conservative MPs, which will help to unlock the EU negotiations on a future trade agreement.