May’s U-turn: Is Labour making up ground in the polls?
Theresa May’s screeching U-turn on capping social care costs is a direct response to hostile voter feedback that was causing insurrection in the Tory ranks. It is difficult to recall when a governing party has performed a major U-turn by ripping up a flagship manifesto policy.
That partly stems from polling that suggests Labour is making up ground following the publication of the party manifestos. An ICM poll released today shows the Tory lead in Labour marginals narrowing from over 20 points to just three. Nationally, Labour is polling well above what Ed Miliband achieved at the 2015 election. The Tories are still on course to win – but the question of how big they will win has become more interesting.
By moving quickly to reverse her social care policy, May has sought to cauterise a political wound that threatened to drain electoral support. The weekend’s media coverage focused on how the policy would disproportionately affect families paying high costs for individuals debilitated by long term illnesses like dementia. Such a lottery was viewed as unfair.
The feedback also revealed an unpalatable electoral truth for May and her team. The policy was not only unattractive to older voters, it also troubled those who stood to gain from their parents assets and faced the prospect of selling property to pay care costs. Alienating two core voting groups who turn out in high numbers risked derailing May’s electoral strategy.
Ignoring these warnings would signal confidence in riding out the storm, safe in the knowledge that they were performing well across scores of seats they hope to win. May’s team have calculated that failing to act now could have turned a problem into a crisis, dominating the final weeks of the campaign.
But the episode could cause her lasting reputational damage. Last week the social care policy was viewed as a sign of a brave leader prepared to offer candour about difficult choices. Commentators have wasted no time in wryly noting that today’s U-turn is the very opposite of strong and stable. And unlike other U-turns, such as the decision to stop national insurance increases, this decision is firmly owned by May and her chief adviser, Nick Timothy. If May fails to deliver a significant victory then fingers will be pointing at Number Ten which could create future tension with her Cabinet and backbenchers.
Does today really matter though?
Labour candidates continue to provide bleak assessments on the ground where Jeremy Corbyn remains a drag anchor on their hopes of retaining seats. Anecdotal evidence suggests traditional Labour supporters are continuing to switch to the Tories in huge numbers.
Applying national share of the vote polling numbers to individual seats may be unwise if Labour’s vote is switching to May and UKIP’s support is collapsing in constituencies where Labour MPs have slim majorities. Furthermore, the national polling underlines that Labour’s vote remains soft with potential supporters prone to last minute changes of heart.
That’s not to ignore the psychological impact. Labour candidates are writing election literature to take advantage of May’s problems in the hope it will provide a boost over the next week. If Labour’s polling numbers follow the current trend it will cause jitters in CCHQ. May needs to move the story on and put the focus back on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
But she may struggle to do that tonight, when she faces a lengthy interrogation by Andrew Neil, who is bound to focus on her social care U-turn and want precise detail on the cap. A failure to do so will also invite questions about whether this is actually a U-turn or a holding line to get out of political difficulty. Fudging it may therefore cause further negative headlines, giving Labour some hope.
Most parties who are favourites to win often suffer campaign blips and today could be merely that. However, the issue highlights some perceived dysfunctionality in the May operation and so the next week promises to be more interesting than many had anticipated.