It is clear that the Conservative manifesto has done serious damage to the Party’s electoral prospects.
There is a sharp and deep inflection point in the Conservatives’ lead from the publication of the manifesto. Never before has a party leader changed a manifesto policy mid-campaign, as Mrs May was forced to do last week over social care, which made a mockery of her endless billing of herself as ‘strong and stable’ until then.
Obviously the social care policy was badly misjudged, politically, and alienated the Tory base of home-owning middle class old folk. Strangely this was the policy that was pre-released to the media on the morning of the manifesto launch. Did they think it would be popular?
The ‘Theresa Miliband’ policies – the energy price caps, the meddling in corporate governance, the workers on boards and the requirements that firms publish gender pay ratios – were mostly watered-down, but are still very alienating to liberal Conservatives. The line “Some people say that it is not for government to regulate when it comes to technology and the internet. We disagree.” isn’t just horrifying to most younger internet users, it contradicts DCMS’s long-held opposition to moves globally to make it easier for states to regulate the internet.
The manifesto was not costed, unlike Labour’s and the Lib Dems’, which led to the audience laughing in the Prime Minister’s face during Monday’s televised Q&A event when she said that Labour’s sums didn’t add up. It included a pledge to hold a free vote on legalising fox hunting, which 84% of people oppose.
Conservative PPCs blame the manifesto for turning the campaign on its head, and the Party's twenty-point lead has at least been cut in half. So what went wrong?
I wonder if May’s lack of an ideological constituency of support might be an important reason that things went so badly so rapidly. The two complaints that people have about the manifesto are that it was done without consulting people who expect to be consulted, and that it doesn’t have any policies that actually appeal to voters. But why has this happened?
Neither of these would normally be issues. Most party leaders have had a circle of supporters and ideological allies around them. Their role is to provide ideas and act as outriders and surrogates to test and defend policies before they have to be made ‘official’ in the manifesto or as government policy.
Under David Cameron, the Conservatives had a mixture of Policy Exchange and the Centre for Social Justice to do this, and eager support from the media. Blair and Brown had groups like the IPPR and Demos; Miliband (I guess) had the likes of Compass. Thatcher had the IEA, the CPS and us; Major had a grab-bag of organisations like the Social Market Foundation and the ASI.
These groups, along with like-minded journalists, can safely raise ideas in the public debate and see the sort of traction they get with everyone else without contaminating the party leadership. The ideas that normal people hate get sloughed away. The ones you’re left with are both reasonably popular and liked by a decent enough core of supporters that they’ll go to bat for you in general.
But there isn’t a ‘Mayite’ think tank. Her policy guru Nick Timothy, his time running the New Schools Network aside, doesn’t have an ideological group behind him and cites Joseph Chamberlain, a 19th Century protectionist of all people, as his political inspiration. This kind of backing may have been very useful as she went without her cabinet, just as it was to Thatcher when she went against hers.
Since May has no ideological or intellectual base either of supporters or of thinkers, she’s come up with a bunch of policies that nobody is really willing to defend. And because nobody has thought much about them or properly tested them in the public debate before now, they've proved to be a lot less popular than they might have sounded when they were drafting the manifesto. May's team probably thought they could get away without much fan service to their base, and rely on her appeal to voters alone. That seems to have been a mistake.
In short: you need a base to test, think through and defend potential policies before you make them official. Every Prime Minister since Thatcher has had that; Mrs May does not. Maybe that explains why her first real policy test was such a failure – one that may haunt her for the rest of her career.