A WEEK is a long time in politics, Harold Wilson famously said. It is three weeks now since the beginning of the General Election campaign, in which I declared that the poll would essentially be about Brexit (Comment, 5 May). I was wrong.
With the publication of the party manifestos, we have entered into a panoply of General Election issues. Each party’s programme has, in turn, shifted the ground a little. Labour has some popular policies, with promises to renationalise the railways, abolish university tuition fees, and outlaw zero-hours contracts. The Liberal Democrats want to ban the sale of diesel cars, reinstate some university maintenance grants, and raise taxes to fund improved NHS and social-care services. The Greens want a four-day working week, a universal basic income, and a ban on fracking.
But it is the Conservative manifesto that is most interesting. Alongside predictable Tory promises on cutting taxes and immigration — and eccentric obsessions about free schools and replacing free school dinners with breakfasts — there is remarkable jettisoning of the ideology of Thatcherism.
Those few voters who have ploughed through the full 88-page manifesto will have come across these lines: “We do not believe in untrammelled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism. We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality. We see rigid dogma and ideology not just as needless but dangerous. True Conservatism means a commitment to country and community; a belief not just in society but in the good that government can do; a respect for . . . the common good.
“We know that our responsibility to one another is greater than the rights we hold as individuals. We understand that nobody, however powerful, has succeeded alone and that we all therefore have a debt to others.”
Political cynics see calculation here. Theresa May knows that she can rely on traditional Tory voters, and she wants unprecedented wins in Labour heartlands in the Midlands and the North. So the manifesto took the risk of appealing to Labourites and irritating Tory voters — by axeing winter-fuel money for the rich and making the better-off pay more for home care. It was as if she was happy to settle for a big rather than a huge majority, to secure a strong and detailed mandate with which to quell later dissent from the Tory Right.
The row which has ensued — in which her care proposals have been dubbed the “dementia tax” — suggests that she may have miscalculated. But the realignment of both Labour and the Conservatives to the Left suggests that British politics, with Brexit beckoning, is in genuine flux. The real question is: will either party, given its internal parliamentary divisions, be able to deliver on these more radical agendas?
Ironically, the media are not much interested in this. They prefer to dwell on gaffes, slips, traps, and U-turns. I’ll reflect on that next week, and try to evaluate what among Brexit, policies, mistakes, and mis-steps, and the personal qualities of the two main prime-ministerial candidates, could determine the outcome of the vote.