(Bloomberg) — Theresa May’s Conservative Party found itself divided on Sunday over plans to make the elderly pay more for their own care, with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson suggesting the policy might be tweaked while Pensions Secretary Damian Green insisted it wouldn’t.
The policy, unveiled in her campaign platform on May 18, would see the elderly paying for their care until their total wealth fell to 100,000 pounds ($130,000). The manifesto reversed the party’s 2015 promise to cap the total amount that people spend on their own care at 72,000 pounds. The party has said it will restrict payments to wealthier pensioners that it previously guaranteed.
The opposition Labour Party, seeing an opportunity to win over older voters, branded the plan a “dementia tax.” That came as polls suggested Labour might be increasing its support ahead of the June 8 election, even though it’s still well behind the Tories. Johnson, speaking on ITV’s “Peston on Sunday,” hinted that a shift is possible.
“I do understand people’s reservations and the questions that people are asking about some of the detail of this,” the foreign secretary said. “As the prime minister said, there will be a consultation on getting it right.”
Johnson refused to say whether he and Cabinet colleagues had been consulted on the proposal in advance. And he’s not the only Tory expressing doubts. Sarah Wollaston, a doctor who chairs Parliament’s Health Committee, questioned her party’s policy in an article in the Times newspaper the day after it was floated. “The dropping of the care cap sadly leaves social care uninsurable, leaving in place the miserable lottery of care costs,” she wrote.
A report Monday from the Royal London Mutual Insurance Society Ltd will show the existing framework for funding elderly care may not be functioning properly. It said some local councils hadn’t got a single person in one of the deferred payment programs that they’re legally obliged to offer pensioners who don’t want to sell their homes to pay for care.
Former Pensions Minister Steve Webb, who is now director of policy at Royal London, urged the government to investigate whether the system was working before expanding it.
But Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green, speaking earlier on the BBC’s “Andrew Marr Show,” said there would be no backing down. “We have set out this policy which we’re not going to look at again,” he said.
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May’s decision, in the middle of an election campaign, to provide details of a policy that was unlikely to be popular suggests she’s sufficiently confident of winning to have decided to trade some support for a clear electoral mandate to make difficult decisions.
Opinion polls suggest that while the Conservatives remain far ahead of Labour, the main opposition party is narrowing the gap at the expense of its smaller rivals. A Survation poll for Good Morning Britain, published Monday, was the latest to show that trend, putting the Tory lead at nine percentage points. Polls over the weekend also suggested the race might be tightening into the single digits.
Such reports should be read with caution: during the 2015 election, pollsters overestimated Labour’s support, and an inquiry subsequently found that the flaws that caused the misreading are hard to fix. The election result also depends on the distribution of votes across Parliamentary seats: May can afford to lose the backing from some wealthy pensioners in areas that are safely Conservative, if she gains the backing of Labour voters in tight races.
Labour will try to increase the pressure by extending its promise to abolish university tuition fees. As well as ending all fees from 2018, the party said on Monday that students starting university in September would have their fees waived.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives were determined to shift the conversation away from the contentious elder-care policy and back to their preferred message: May versus Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Johnson said he wanted to talk about “the fundamental contrast of this election, which is between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn — that’s the choice before the people of this country.”
In a speech in Wales on Monday, May will say that with just 11 days between the election and the start of Brexit negotiations, Corbyn would be unable to prepare for the talks.
“The U.K.’s seat at the negotiating table will be filled by me or Jeremy Corbyn,” she’ll say, according to her office. “The deal we seek will be negotiated by me or Jeremy Corbyn. There will be no time to waste and no time for a new government to find its way. So the stakes in this election are high.”
A focusing of Tory fire on Corbyn could target some of the political positions he took during the 1980s, including his meetings with Irish republicans at a time of heavy terrorist violence. In an interview with Sky News’s “Ridge On Sunday,” the Labour leader was asked repeatedly if he condemned the Irish Republican Army’s bombing campaign, and answered that he “condemned all those that do bombing, all those on both sides. ”
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