The 2017 British General Election has suddenly got more interesting. Theresa May’s relentless march to a three figure majority seemed a certainty. There is good reason to say it will still happen. Since the local elections, the Conservative vote has been in the high forties with little sign of switchers from Labour changing their mind. Labour has seen a slow increase in support off the back of popular policies tempting votes from the remaining parties to switch sides. But this has been a trickle not a flood. Corbyn remains a key problem among certain sections of the electorate with voters unwilling to put their sympathy for Labour policies above their concerns about the competence of the leader.
All was going swimmingly for May until the surprise inclusion of the Conservatives’ new social care plans in the party’s manifesto. Whilst some may view this as honest and upfront, tackling head-on a major long term issue in British politics, the plans have been undeniably badly communicated to the electorate. Political chaos and commotion has ensued with labels such as the ‘dementia tax’ or ‘stealth death tax’ banded around by the media and opposition parties. May’s u-turn on Monday announcing that there would be a consultation on the precise cap on social care costs is an attempt to limit the electoral damage but the ambiguity around the issue isn’t likely to go away. Setting a cap is likely to increase unfairness. This contradicts the pitch of the original proposal which May argued had fairness at its heart. For some May’s change of heart can be viewed as a willingness to be pragmatic and listen to the concerns of the voters, for others it strikes at the heart of her sell: credibility and competence. Other ambiguities on winter fuel allowance and future tax plans could add to a growing impression of distrust and scepticism of May among key voters in the election. The Presidential campaign suddenly appears to be a little wobbly.
But who is this likely to benefit? For all the furore over the policy and May’s u-turn, it is difficult to see a large flood of voters transferring their support to Labour. Even in polls which have been recently favourable to Labour, concerns over the leader, economic credibility, division in the party and on policies such as defence remain dominant among key floating voters. Yet this still could be a game-changer in key seats. Step forward the Liberal Democrats. Hopes were high for the Liberal Democrats entering the election. But it is fair to say they’ve found the election challenging. The Liberal Democrats strategy to fight a ‘Brexit election’ has not worked. Not only have many Conservative ‘Remainers’ reluctantly accepted the Referendum vote, the Liberal Democrats more generally is still suffering from the collapse in credibility following its stint in coalition with the Conservatives. Farron has also failed to make a mark with the media making hay on how his personal convictions correspond with the party’s position on homosexuality and abortion. Some may label this unfair but it is undeniable that it has distracted the party in getting its message across and hasn’t helped him personally win over voters. Recent polling suggests that Farron is less favoured than Corbyn. As such, the Liberal Democrats have been restricted to a highly targeted campaign in specific seats with many questioning not whether they will make gains but if they can actually hang on to the seats they already hold. But this was before the chaos on social care.
The Liberal Democrats have needed a hook to reboot their campaign and this could just be it. Their 1p extra on income tax to fund an integrated health care system and the party’s recent focus on mental health and social care give it some credibility amongst the electorate. In electoral terms, exploiting the chaos could persuade some Conservatives to switch sides to them in marginal contests, in both seats they are targeting, but also crucially in Conservative-Labour marginals where the ‘Blue Wall’ looked until now impregnable. The result could be a double-whammy blow to the Conservatives: losses to the Liberal Democrats and Labour hanging on to more marginal seats than was widely expected. So it will be interesting to see whether the consequences of May’s social care u-turn will be reflected not only in increasing support for Labour but also for the Liberal Democrats. With just days to the postal vote deadline, the Conservatives realised that continuing disquiet with their social care plans could play badly with these voters in key marginals. Whether May’s u-turn has done enough to limit the damage time will tell.