Theresa May said on Wednesday that her manifesto would set out how she intended to take the “tough decisions” needed to tackle the “five great challenges our country faces” over the next five years.
She did not spell out what these challenges were but it led some commentators to recall William Beveridge’s campaign to tackle the “five giant evils” of “want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness”. May’s manifesto is unlikely to match those ambitions, but these are five areas which could shape her premiership.
Just as “Brexit means Brexit”, May will be reluctant to spell out her negotiating strategy in more detail. But the manifesto does perform one important constitutional function in that a clear commitment at this stage means that the House of Lords cannot persistently block any manifesto endorsed by the electorate.
It is worth recalling the wording of the 2015 Conservative manifesto on Europe:
We will legislate in the first session of the next parliament for an in-out referendum to be held on Britain’s membership of the EU before the end of 2017. We will negotiate a new settlement for Britain in the EU. And then we will ask the British people whether they want to stay in on this basis, or leave. We will honour the result of the referendum, whatever the outcome.
David Cameron’s manifesto promised to not only stay in the single market but to expand it. The prime minister may now want to secure an electoral endorsement to ensure a “hard Brexit” is beyond doubt. Watch out for an explicit pledge to leave the EU’s single market and the customs union. There will also be a commitment to the “great repeal bill” but beyond that May will not want to lay down specific red lines ahead of the negotiation.
May has no intention of repeating Cameron’s 2015 “tax lock” pledge not to raise income tax, national insurance or VAT. This was subsequently enshrined in law and the initial decision by the chancellor to ignore it in his last budget led to his humiliating U-turn on the proposal to increase national insurance contributions for the self-employed.
May and Philip Hammond on Wednesday both said the Conservatives were “a low tax party” but explicitly refused to rule out increasing taxes for higher earners. A higher inheritance tax rate on estates to fund changes in social care has also been canvassed. The prime minister also said that a timetable would be set out for eliminating the deficit.
3. NHS/social care
May has repeatedly made clear that the social care crisis is on her “to do” list, as shown by the revelation of the pledge for elderly care. She is unlikely to write a big cheque or repeat George Osborne’s £8bn NHS pledge in 2015, outbidding even Labour’s manifesto offer. She is said to regard the NHS as “spendthrift” but has to renew its five-year-plan – which is currently in year three – amid warnings that its modernisation programme is at risk if more money is not forthcoming.
There was campaign speculation that the seven-year-old “tens of thousands” net migration target, never met, was to be dropped. Net migration to the UK now stands at 273,000. But a reluctant Downing Street was forced to confirm that it would be renewed in the manifesto. Beyond that, interest will centre on the future shape of UK policy towards EU migrants when free movement comes to an end post-Brexit. A pledge to restrict rights of EU nationals to bring non-EU spouses to live in Britain is expected.
5. What’s on offer for a working-class kid from Brixton, Birmingham, Bolton or Bradford?
This was a question asked in a 2016 article by May’s joint chief of staff, Nick Timothy, who was raised in a Brummie working-class family, which identified the Tories’ most serious weakness as “the perception that we simply do not give a toss about ordinary people”.
He said an approach was needed that continued to help the very poor and fought injustices based on gender, race and sexuality but the party also needed to “adopt a relentless focus on governing in the interests of ordinary, working people”.
He argued that previous Tory governments had got this right on welfare reform, increasing the minimum wage and the “northern powerhouse”. But he said they had lost sight of their interests on energy policy, housebuilding, immigration, tax credit cuts, protecting pensioner benefits, and the profile of spending cuts. Look out for evidence of this bigger vision of what might be called Mayism in the manifesto.