Opinion Editorial: The Lady is not for Wobbling: Mrs May, social care and spending political capital

MFlinders-new-smallBy Matt Flinders

A shorter version of this blog post was originally published by Prospect magazine.

When is a wobble not a wobble? This might not seem the most obvious question to be asking in the context of the current General Election campaign but that’s exactly what makes it so important. Could it be that Theresa May’s recent backtracking on the costs of social care was nothing of the kind? Instead part of a more subtle game of preparing the public for tough choices that will inevitably have to be taken? Have we just witnessed the political equivalent of a footballers fake dive?

Partisan politics aside, there is little doubt that Theresa May is an incredibly astute politician. She plays the game well and to some extent he has re-written the rulebook. The game of politics is rarely as simple as kicking the ball or scoring goals; more concerned with playing other players off against each other, often within your team, and knowing exactly when to go for the legs instead of the ball. The simple point I am making is that Theresa May has climbed to the summit of the British political system as if it really were a weekend wander with Philip.

I’m clearly exaggerating to make my point and ‘the commentators curse’ may now ensure Theresa May’s immediate collapse under a double-pincer tackle from behind (where are Boris and Gove this week?) but my point is that there was something odd about the Conservative Manifesto launch and the subsequent brouhaha over social care costs. This was a strong and bold manifesto, it explicitly re-positioned the Conservative Party towards a more traditional model of conservatism and – critically – it highlighted the existence of major and increasing inter-generational inequalities that will at some point have to be addressed.

This was no ‘back of a fag packet’ hastily scribbled treatise but a thoughtful manifesto for social change that bore the clear imprint of one of the most impressive brains ever to have worked within No.10 – Nick Timothy. Could it really therefore have been that no one saw the backlash about social care costs coming? Was this really a manifesto written in a rush and therefore in need of later refinement?

I don’t believe it. There was something far more fundamental and strategic going on. Theresa May was effectively cashing-in a little political capital in order to make a point. The current system is unsustainable. Previous governments have consistently protected the position of older generations for the simple reason that they are the social cohort overwhelmingly most likely to actually vote. This is not fair. The reason young people tend not to vote is because they feel that the political system does not work in their interests (which is largely true because they don’t vote). Therefore British politics is trapped in a self-sustaining cycle of cynicism that risks simply increasing levels of inter-generational inequality while also preventing the introduction of policies to address certain embedded structural disparities.

In this context the Conservative manifesto’s position on social care and universal benefits was not under-cooked or ill-prepared – it was a calculated decision to soften-up large sections of the public and forewarn them that the current situation is untenable.

It takes a brave politician to adopt a strategy that will undoubtedly be unpopular with a core section of their traditional electorate but the simple fact is that Mrs May can not only afford to be brave but there is an argument that she actually needs to deflate the dominant position of the Conservative Party – to cash in a little popularity in order to make the public aware of the need to take tough choices later on.

The idea that a strong politician might actually want to cultivate just a touch, a dash, of unpopularity might seem completely bizarre but there are risks for a government, particularly in the British context of being too strong, too dominant. Like a kite flying high the stronger the wind the more impressive sight but so too are the risks of a sudden implosion, a panel torn or a once taught string suddenly snapped. Too large a majority risks having large numbers of MPs wandering the corridors of Westminster bemoaning the fact that their phone never rang; the offer of a ministerial position never made. Angry, embarrassed and over-looked these backbenchers tend to congregate, scheme and plan….(why do Boris and Gove keep springing to mind?)

I could well be wrong but my sense is that this was no wobble. President May is too bright to make such a basic error of judgement. This was a calculated move, a slight tug of the string, to take just a little wind out of the sales of the Tory kite, to cash in just a little political capital in order to manage the politics of public expectations about the future.

Matthew Flinders is Professor of Politics and Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield. He can get the word brouhaha into almost any sentence and his latest book – What Kind of Democracy Is This?is published by Policy Press next month.

If you enjoyed this blog post you may also be interested to read Personalisation, ambiguity and conflict: Matland’s model of policy implementation and the ‘transformation’ of adult social care in England by Kathryn Ellis.

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