Following the manifesto launches of the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats last week, the weekend has seen the Conservative lead erode further, with Labour noticeably narrowing the gap. The Conservatives still enjoy a large 13% lead. However, it is undeniable that the Labour strategy of diverting attention away from leadership and Brexit appears to be paying off, surpassing expectations of their performance. They have also shown a deftness of touch in swiftly capitalising on the ‘dementia tax’ – the social care proposals in the Conservative manifesto. Pressure on May from back benchers, local councils and the electorate has this morning pushed her into a semi U-turn, saying there will be a consultation on social care which will include a cap, or as she described it, an “absolute limit” on the money people will need to pay for social care.
This is an embarrassing wobble in a campaign built around the solidity and assuredness of the Prime Minister. The Tories have heavily invested in Theresa May as their “Strong and Stable” leader, and the person most trusted to deliver on (particularly) Brexit. Though repetitive, this was cutting through with the electorate, and showing that the Conservatives were increasing their vote share with potential to win constituencies in the North, Scotland and Wales – where they have never won before. For the Prime Minister now to be forced into reversing course so swiftly on such a high profile manifesto commitment is seriously damaging.
Though the Conservative poll lead remains large with two and a half weeks to go, the “Tory wobble” will worry Theresa May and her team. Based on current polling averages, May would win around a 84 seat majority – which would be seen as a good, but not fantastic, result against a Labour leader that is seen as the one of the most unpopular in modern times. A key question is in what seats the Labour revival is happening. If Labour is simply piling on votes in areas they already safely hold, they will not need to worry overly. On the other hand, if it is stiffening support in seats that are in play, alarm bells will start to ring.
Though Labour opinion polling has improved, Jeremy Corbyn’s personal ratings have not improved. Lynton Crosby, Theresa May’s election “guru” who won Cameron’s surprising majority in 2015, will need to regather his troops and ensure that the message flips back to the topics of leadership and Brexit. That this is already underway can be seen from the Prime Minister’s speech at which the concession on social care was made. Although the headlines are about the policy u-turn, most of her words actually focused on the negatives of Jeremy Corbyn.
In future weeks, we can expect the Tories to double down on this, with a barrage of negative stories concerning Jeremy Corbyn and his connections with the IRA, Hezbolla and other controversial groups. Crosby will hope that this messaging will refocus the electorates mind on the leadership question and encourage the comparison with Corbyn. The tightening polls may also help them by making the threat of a Corbyn Government seem much more real.