THERESA May’s U-turn on the ‘dementia tax’ has been hailed as an unprecedented reversal of policy by any party at the height of a general election campaign.
The Prime Minister who was selling herself as “strong and stable” has now been branded “weak and wobbly”.
And a party which at the start of the campaign seemed to be heading for a commanding three-figure majority in the Commons has been left looking in a mess of its own making.
The Tories’ UK manifesto, launched last Thursday, had much more in the way of detailed policy proposals than many had expected.
The ‘dementia tax’ was one of a series of measures which would hit pensioners – an apparently brave move given older people are more likely to vote than younger people, and also more likely to vote Tory.
There was also the plan to abolish the triple lock on pensions, removing the guarantee of an annual rise in line with inflation, average earnings or 2.5 per cent, whichever was higher.
And the Tories also plan to introduce a means test for the winter fuel allowance.
Commentators said Mrs May felt able to demonstrate the courage to be bold and tackle a difficult problem – the growing financial burden of caring for the elderly – because she was confident of winning the election comfortably and could therefore afford to lose favour with some sections of her natural support.
But as soon as reports started trickling back to Tory campaign headquarters about the adverse reaction out in the constituencies, and polls showed the Tory lead falling, Mrs May decided to change the most controversial of the proposals and reinstate the idea of a cap on how much people would have to pay for care.
No matter that her close ally Damian Green, asked on TV whether the party was willing to look at the ‘dementia tax’ again, gave an unequivocal “No”, or that Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt had ruled out a cap saying it was “unfair”.
Having carried out the embarrassing volte-face, Mrs May made things even worse by bizarrely insisting: “Nothing has changed.” There is no doubt that the UK, including Scotland – where care of the elderly is a devolved responsibility – faces major challenges in looking after an ageing population and finding the money to pay for it. Meeting those challenges might well involve difficult and unpopular decisions.
But Mrs May’s plans to make some elderly people foot more of the bill for their own care could set a dangerous precedent. And if they are changed only days after being unveiled, there can be little confidence they have been properly thought through.
The ‘dementia tax’ comes after other U-turns on putting workers on company boards, increasing national insurance – and of course not calling a snap general election.
It’s not just misjudging a policy or even the embarrassment of performing such a dramatic volte-face in the middle of an election campaign that is so damaging.
It is the fact that the panicked change of heart undermines her main pitch to voters about offering “strong and stable leadership”.
Now she will never again be able to utter those words without commentators or opponents countering with the “weak and wobbly” label her U-turn attracted.