Conservative manifesto launch: a last throw of the kitchen sink for Rishi Sunak? 

Michael Dowsett, Associate Director

It’s a sign of how much the Prime Minister’s early election gamble has backfired that at the halfway point of the campaign many commentators are already describing today’s manifesto launch as a last chance for the Conservatives to salvage some sort of electorally respectable result.

The PM’s bet was that an election would focus the public’s mind on the choice between a Labour and Conservative government, creating space for the party’s bold policy offering to cut through. First the Conservatives would squeeze Reform on the right, the theory went, and having closed the gap with Labour invite scrutiny on what a Starmer government would actually mean. In the best-case scenario, some Tory optimists hoped, maybe voters would be reticent enough about Labour to return a hung parliament.

Alas, the election has so far proven the maxim of famous political pundit Mike Tyson, namely that everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. For the PM, this came in the form of a hook from the right, with Nigel Farage’s assumption of the Reform UK leadership and candidacy in Clacton boosting his party in the polls. Combined with unforced errors such as Sunak’s early departure from last week’s D-Day commemorations, and flagship policy announcements – such as on National Service and a new ‘Triple Lock Plus’ for pensioners – falling flat, debate has now shifted to whether the Conservatives will perform well enough to match even their modern electoral nadir in 1997.

If today’s manifesto launch is the last throw of the dice, it will be rolled on the basis of doubling down on what has already been tried over recent weeks and months. It’s doubtful whether the flagship pledge of a further 2p cut in National Insurance will shift the polls when the previous two failed to do so, and could even backfire by adding credence to Labour’s claims that the Conservatives have a vast unfunded plan to do away with the tax altogether.

More broadly, as with all longstanding governments, questions around why eye-catching policy ideas haven’t already been implemented if they’re so meritorious, and a general ‘time for a change’ mood, look at present like fatal barriers to the Conservatives gaining any traction.

The Conservatives’ prospectus is therefore unlikely to be a useful guide to government thinking for those looking to engage with decision makers over the next five years. Could it though provide a steer on Conservative thinking that could hold through to the time – however far in the future – when the party returns to government?

The party’s 1997-2010 spell in opposition suggests that it might, given the number of policies in ‘losing’ manifestoes that ended up signposting key policy planks of the Cameron, May and Johnson governments.

Let’s consider a few examples. The 1997 pledge to expand a US-style workfare system foreshadows the welfare reforms made by the 2010-15 Coalition government. The same document promised a ‘grammar school in every major town’, something that was briefly a key part of Theresa May’s policy platform during her ‘honeymoon’ in 2016-17. Boris Johnson’s levelling up agenda was seen as a key departure from recent Tory thinking, yet his was also a government which advocated for the privatisation of Channel 4 (a 2001 pledge). In 2005, Michael Howard put a cap on immigration numbers at the heart of the Tory campaign, something that Rishi Sunak has revisited in this campaign in the form of a cap on work visas.

Above all, the increasing Eurosceptic nature of Conservative manifestoes from 1997 foreshadowed the party’s offer of an In/Out referendum in 2015 and our departure from the EU five years later.

What then are the pledges in this manifesto which, whilst they may be overlooked amidst widely expected Conservative defeat, could indicate a direction of travel for the next Conservative government?

Having used their early years in government after 2010 to expand devolution, commitments to scrap the ULEZ expansion in London and introduce referendums for 20 mph zones and Low Traffic Neighbourhoods could signal a more confrontational attitude towards Labour-run cities in future.

Committing to funding more apprenticeships through scrapping ‘rip-off’ degrees suggests a shift by the party in favour of technical education routes and a more hostile stance towards the universities sector – a part of the education system which the party expended political capital to increase funding for in the early 2010s.

Finally, pledges on the definition of sex as biological sex and pressure from many in the party for a tougher line on the ECHR are likely to be the forerunner of a clearer stance from the Conservatives on the type of ‘cultural’ issues that have split its MPs over recent years.

So, whilst the manifesto launched today is likely to be forever associated with a very poor election result for the Conservatives, don’t rule out some of its measures re-emerging as government policy one day in the future.

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