James Butler on the Conservative Manifesto

Boris Johnson launched his manifesto yesterday in Telford. Both document and event were marked by only the lightest dusting of the Conservative brand: everything was instead blazoned with ‘Get Brexit Done’, the recurrent theme, too, of an otherwise flimsy manifesto. ‘As a blueprint for five years in government,’ the IFS noted, ‘the lack of significant policy action is remarkable.’

The introduction is crammed with tortured Johnsonian similes; a reference to the constituent nations of the UK as the ‘awesome foursome’ could convert an ardent unionist to the cause of Scottish independence. As with most of Johnson’s writing, the rhetorical backflips conceal stunted ambitions. The Tory mantra is ‘Get Brexit Done’, but the ‘sunlit uplands’ once prophesied by Andrea Leadsom have dwindled. In the lexicon of management consultancy, the manifesto promises to ‘unleash Britain’s potential’ – ‘unleashing’ typically being a euphemism for deregulation, or gutting of employee protection. Brexit has always been an empty utopia – without any substantive ideas of ways the nation might be transformed after leaving the EU – but in the Tory manifesto it has no content at all, bar a promise to enforce an ‘Australian-style points-based system to control immigration’. Britain effectively has such a system already, however; and Australia’s immigration policy is famous not only for quantifying refugees but for dumping them in squalor in island ghettos – a practice the comparison may be deliberately alluding to.

Consistent with the government’s refusal to publish any economic assessment of its proposed EU withdrawal agreement, the manifesto refuses to entertain any possible downside to Brexit. Behind the façade, though, many of its pledges are aimed at mitigating the fallout: a promise not to flog off the NHS, a vague assurance on retaining labour regulation, and a scheme for agricultural guest-workers to pick the crops currently rotting in English fields. At the same time, perhaps with an eye to his reacquired Brexit Party voters on the right, Johnson asserts there will be no extension beyond 2020, whatever trade experts say about the improbability of concluding a deal in that time – raising again the spectre of a No Deal crash-out at the end of next year.

It is possible, of course, that this is simply another promise made to be broken. Conspicuous by its absence from the manifesto is Johnson’s key pledge when running for Tory leader: to raise the threshold for the upper band of income tax from £50,000 to £80,000 a year. Also missing is any serious policy on social care. Johnson’s first speech on the steps of Downing Street promised to ‘fix the crisis in social care once and for all’, vowing a ‘clear plan … to give every older person the dignity and security they deserve’. Of that plan there is no sign: in its place is a non-policy, a promise to stem the worst of the crisis next year with an emergency cash injection, and ‘build a cross-party consensus to bring forward an answer’. It is a strategic abdication – Team Johnson are wary of repeating May’s dementia tax moment – and neatly dodges questions over the past decade of slashed local government grants, which have brought the crisis to boiling point. It is hard to imagine, however, that Johnson won’t be pressed on it, if he deigns to appear in the less pliant parts of the media.

What substance there is in the manifesto has already begun to unravel: the headline pledge for 50,000 new nurses counts 19,000 currently in post; the FT has spotted a £3 billion hole in the costings document, promised by Sajid Javid to be the ‘most detailed, most transparent’ in British political history. Its desultory six pages, generously spaced with most of the numbers unsourced, compare unfavourably with Labour’s forty-page, painstakingly technical framework. The optimism involved in reversing the Beeching cuts to the railways for a quarter of the sum dedicated to fixing potholes should also raise eyebrows.

The document earmarks £2 billion for the pothole fund. It is a more appropriate flagship policy than the inflated pledge on nurses: another problem exacerbated by local government cuts, tightly focus-grouped to appeal to Tory target voters, easy to fling a chunk of cash at. It says nothing about the state of the country, nothing about what might have gone wrong since 2010, nothing about how we might fund infrastructure in the future. It also loudly signals the cynicism of the electoral retail offer, and repeats a variation of Theresa May’s motif: nothing has changed, nothing will change.

There are scraps for the authoritarian right: a promise to let Priti Patel ‘update’ the Human Rights Act, stringent laws against travellers, a rollback of the scope of judicial review. Plans to ‘protect our democracy’ include mandatory ID at polling stations – a voter-suppression tactic learned from the Republican Party in the US, under the guise of solving a problem, electoral fraud, that’s virtually non-existent in Britain – and constituency boundary reform. Even there, though, the policy ambition is thin.

Read against each other, the Labour and Conservative manifestos suggest that the parties have drawn diametrically opposed conclusions from 2017’s election. Labour’s strategy, effectively, is to ‘go big or go home’: it reckons that its promise of another referendum on EU membership will allow it to focus on the UK’s longer-term issues, not least the scale of change needed to tackle the climate crisis, but also Britain’s warped economy, its festering housing problem and vandalised social fabric. By contrast, the Tories have learned that what you don’t say, you don’t have to defend: by avoiding controversy, they hope to sail home with their Brexit coalition intact.

Labour has to hope that, as its manifesto feeds out to the doorsteps, and its activists undertake the hard work of convincing people in straitened circumstances that change is possible, it will see an uptick in the polls. That will be difficult without a real squeeze on the Liberal Democrat vote, though the bland technocracy of the Lib Dem manifesto, Jo Swinson’s dire public performances and a repolarisation of politics as the election date bears down may all help with that. Johnson’s squeeze, however, is already largely complete, with most of Nigel Farage’s voters already siphoned off; the real question for him, given his anaemic manifesto, is what – past the vacuity of ‘getting Brexit done’ – he actually plans to do.