Last week saw the launch of the Conservative manifesto, and I thought that Theresa May had achieved yet another stage in her immaculate transformation into the Ghost of Margaret Thatcher Made Flesh. Thatcher was labelled ‘MilkSnatcher’ for her removal of free school milk for over 7s during her time as Secretary for Education under Heath in 1971, but May’s manifesto, cutting free school meals for children in England and Wales, had surely been enough to dub her ‘LunchSnatcher’. The celebrations of Thatcher’s death included plans to bombard her hearse with milk as it made its (near) royal procession through London – could Theresa expect to have sandwiches thrown at hers?
Theresa Mary May (née Brasier) has not sought to avoid the comparison with the Iron Lady (no matter how unpopular that would make her in Scotland in particular), the idea of the vicar’s daughter from Oxfordshire somehow resonating even more with the idyllic fantasy of England’s cricket-playing village greens than that of Margaret Hilda Thatcher (née Roberts), the shopkeeper’s daughter from Grantham in Lincolnshire. If May were to follow in Thatcher’s footsteps she would pay little heed to such opprobium from the mere public – but the Conservative manifesto launch contained other gems that certainly did make her core voters sit up and take notice.
The delayed announcement of the raising of the state pension age until after the election had caused suspicions to arise, as had the delay of 6 years to women born in the 1950s receiving their state pensions, so effectively publicised by WASPI (Women Against State Pension Inequality), losing up to £45,000 each in the process. In Westminster, the SNP leader Angus Robertson MP had read the way the wind was blowing and had correctly intuited an imminent threat to the triple lock protection on the state pension, pinning May during Prime Minister’s Questions as she refused to answer whether the lock would stay or not. Sure enough, in the Conservative manifesto the scrapping of the triple lock on pensions – the guarantee that ensures that state pensions rise in line with average earnings, inflation or 2.5 per cent (whichever is the highest) – was announced, as was the removal of the winter fuel allowance for the elderly, and the introduction of what was swiftly dubbed the ‘Dementia Tax’, wherein the appropriation of people’s homes to posthumously pay for their care costs became embedded in law. Given that a report last month showed a rise in pensioner poverty across the UK, it is perhaps less than surprising that Theresa’s core support group – the elderly – did not take kindly to being taken for granted, and over the last weekend her lead halved in two polls to only 9 points above Labour. Theresa did not take this change in polling fortune lying down, however, and set about spinning on the Monday morning – just 4 days after the manifesto policy was launched – at a press conference in Wrexham that there was always going to be a ‘cap’ on the homes affected (although this had been emphatically denied by ministers the previous week – but you can see why it would be an idea given the figures in the table above), to try and recover some political support from her ‘Greys’.
For Theresa Mary May is a Poll-Dancer. She called the snap General Election in April when two polls came in over a single weekend showing a 20-21 point lead for the Conservatives over Labour. Faced with the Crown Prosecution Service in imminent danger of removing her majority, and the certainty that the economy will progressively deteriorate (pardon the oxymoron) the further we get from Article 50 having been raised to leave the European Union, it only made sense to her to opportunistically scrap the Fixed Terms Act in order to call an early election under the pretense of it strengthening her supposed hand against Brussels in the forthcoming BrExit discussions. If she did not make a fast jump now, before times get really bad, the she would risk having to go to the country for an election in 3 years time, when expectations are that BrExit fantasies will have started to implode into a grim reality. In this way – one might suspect that she reasoned – she might be able to hold on to power until after the immediate start of the bite of the BrExit-generated austerity, and perhaps ride some kind of slow delayed slight upswing, with her political opponents having been annihilated by her new post-June majority.
And now she dances to the tune of the polls again – trying to pretend that her ‘Dementia Tax’ was not nearly so bad as had been said (much like the ‘Rape Clause’ of last month). Except that Theresa went into meltdown on live television twice in one day on Monday. First of all, in calling the press conference in Wrexham to announce that there was a cap (although what the cap value of the property was, noone knew, and she was not going to say), she took questions from journalists – something she is known to be poor at…and one from a Michael Crick of Channel 4 News. Michael is the journalist who pretty much singlehandedly dug up the story of the Conservative election expenses fraud when no other media outlet was acknowledging that it existed for over 9 months, which resulted in the Crown Prosecution Service receiving files from fifteen police services. Crick started softly, comparing May to Thatcher (which she obviously relished) with her ‘the lady is not for turning’ and ‘You turn if you want to’, pointing out that May’s U-turn not only set her apart from Thatcher, but far from being ‘strong and stable’ (as her election soundbite has wearingly been) this was “weak and wobbly”. May did not respond well – and ended up shrieking in an out of control fashion “Nothing has changed! Nothing has changed!” (ironically enough to a question from the Daily Telegraph). It is a shocking piece of video to watch, for someone who occupies the office of Prime Minister to crack like this – a friend of mine watched the tape back: ‘She looks like she is going to cry’, she said. That night, she went on to be interviewed live by Andrew Neill, and despite him being no enemy of the Conservatives, she looked adrift and lost, again reduced to repeating a limited number of vapid soundbites. She must have gone to bed that night wondering how she could turn things around, when she was losing her lead even with such solid support from the British press.
And then the bomb went off at Manchester Arena after the Ariana Grande concert, killing 22 and injuring a further 59 in the (predominantly) young female audience.
Even without going down the tinfoil hat conspiracy line that this ‘intervention’ seemed almost too perfect for her agenda (this is not to ignore that it plays very well to other external agendas), it is undeniable that this has given her breathing space which she will be grateful for: political campaigning has ceased, she gets to deploy 5,000 army personnel on the streets (she cut 19,000 police officers as Home Secretary, so there are not enough armed police to cut it anymore) under Operation Temperer and bask in reflected military strength (not unlike Thatcher sending off the Falklands task force when her popularity was waning with the public), to feed off the inevitable ‘anti-immigrant’ feeling that will strengthen her hardline BrExit stance, and give the public time to forget – even if just a little – her horrendous crumpling under modest pressure on live television. At a time when politically she had – entirely through her own doing – landed herself on the ropes, she will be able to regroup once more in time to restart the campaign next week, aided by cartoons and comment in the Daily Mail and the Telegraph that seek to remind people that her opponent Jeremy Corbyn ‘associated’ with the IRA while trying to make progress for peace, and thus insinuate that in some unspoken way he bears a ‘responsibility’ for what happened in Manchester.
As Jon Stone has noted in The Independent, Theresa May has developed something of a penchant for u-turns in her ten months as Prime Minister, willing to swiftly reverse unpopular announcements from BrExit (Remain before, Leave after), increasing National Insurance for self-employed workers, calling a General Election before 2020, amongst several. What poll trend she jumps to the rhythm of next will be interesting to see – but instead of strong and stable she has instead looked startlingly inconstant and all too desperate to court public opinion. In conjunction with the recent changes in the Labour Party’s fortunes, it starts to look as though the survival of this Poll-Dancer as PM would actually be something of a surprise. But one thing is for sure – the only thing that will be ‘stable’ in the run-up to June 8th will be Theresa May’s desperate dance and willingness to reverse for the favour of the polls, lest her electoral gamble fall to dust in her hands.
“She is hitting older people with a classic Nasty Party triple-whammy: Scrapping the triple lock on pensions, removing the winter fuel allowance and forcing those who need social care to pay for it with their homes.” (Jeremy Corbyn responds to the Conservative manifesto launch)