May's manifesto is birth of third way Conservatism – The Guardian

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Talk of rejecting ‘untrammelled’ free markets will have some Tories scratching their heads, but this is the manifesto of a leader planning for long-term power

<!–[if IE 9]><![endif]–>Theresa May holds up the dark blue-bound Tory manifesto




Conservative party leader Theresa May holds up a copy of the Tory manifesto.
Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

May’s manifesto is birth of third way Conservatism

Talk of rejecting ‘untrammelled’ free markets will have some Tories scratching their heads, but this is the manifesto of a leader planning for long-term power

The Conservatives have taken great pleasure in depicting Labour’s manifesto as a throwback to the 1970s. Their own document also has echoes of the decade of oil shocks and rampant inflation. Theresa May plans to be the most interventionist Tory prime minister since Ted Heath, all the way down to the proposal to modernise the shipbuilding industry.

Two sentences in the Conservative manifesto sum up the rejection of the pure laissez-faire doctrine Margaret Thatcher held so dear. “We do not believe in untrammelled free markets,” and “we reject the cult of selfish individualism”. May’s twofold message to the electorate is clear: the Tories are no longer the nasty party and she has something to offer wavering Labour voters.

This, put simply, is third way Conservatism. For some rightwing Tories, the attack on free markets and the belief in the power of the state will be heresy. In political terms, it is May’s equivalent of Blair dropping the commitment to nationalisation soon after he took over as Labour leader. It is her Clause IV moment.

In other ways, too, the manifesto has echoes of New Labour. Gordon Brown used to talk about “prudence for a purpose”; May adopts a similar approach. Sound public finances are not an end in themselves but are the foundation of a successful economy.

Even so, the manifesto demonstrates some chutzpah when it says a government that cannot manage its money properly will be incapable of commanding confidence at home or abroad. When they came to power in 2010, the Conservatives said they would put the public finances straight in a single parliament. The underperformance of the economy meant a 2015 deadline became a 2020 deadline and is now a 2025 deadline.

The glacial pace of deficit reduction means that the 2017 manifesto is far more cautious in its tax pledges than the one produced by David Cameron two years ago. Back then, when the opinion polls were suggesting a hung parliament, Cameron pledged no increase in income tax rates, national insurance contributions or VAT. Of those, the only one to make the cut this time is the promise not to raise VAT. Similarly, the triple lock on pensions has become a double lock and there will be means testing – another hallmark of Brown’s approach – of the winter fuel allowance for pensioners.

Expect Philip Hammond (assuming he is still chancellor) to take advantage of the extra leeway in the autumn. Taxes tend to go up in the first budget after an election.

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From the moment she arrived in Downing Street last summer, May signalled that she favoured a more hands-on industrial strategy, and the manifesto fleshes out some of the new thinking: a commitment to raise research and development spending to the 2.4% of GDP average of developed countries within 10 years, and a longer term aim of reaching 3% of GDP. Growth industries of the future will be identified and supported through trade, tax, infrastructure, skills, training and R&D measures.

Some of the manifesto commitments lack substance. The pledge to cut net migration to the tens of thousands has been retained but without any notion of how the target will be achieved. It would be missed even if, in the aftermath of Brexit, there was a complete ban on workers arriving from the EU.

Similarly, the manifesto says the Conservatives would protect people working in the “gig” economy, without fleshing out how they intend to do so. The sections on executive pay and corporate governance are strong on rhetoric but weak on specifics.

May’s manifesto differs from Jeremy Corbyn’s in two distinct ways. Firstly, it contains far fewer numbers. Labour feels the need to show that its sums add up: the Conservatives believe that voters will take what they say on trust.

Secondly, the decision to drop the triple tax pledge, ditch the triple lock on pensions and to make the elderly pay more towards social care speaks volumes. Labour’s manifesto was about shoring up its core vote ahead of an election it expects to lose. The Conservatives are focusing on issues such as social care and intergenerational fairness because they expect to be in power for a long time.