U.K. Tories on Defensive Over Plans to Make Elderly Pay for Care

Theresa May’s Conservative Party found itself on the defensive over plans to make the elderly pay 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 Thursday, 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 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.

Theresa May canvassing in Ealing on May 20.

Photographer: WPA Pool/Getty Images

The opposition Labour Party, seeing an opportunity to win over older voters, branded the plans a “dementia tax.” That came as polls suggested Labour might be increasing its support ahead of the June 8 election, though still far 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.”

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.

U.K. Parties Outline Programs Ahead of General Election

May’s decision, in the middle of an election campaign, to set out in the manifesto details of a policy that was unlikely to be popular suggests she is 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. Labour cut the Tories’ lead in the latest Opinium Research survey to 13 points from 15 points a week earlier, and a YouGov survey in the Sunday Times put Corbyn’s party nine points behind. The last time Labour managed a single-digit deficit in the YouGov series was in September.

Such reports should be read with caution: At the 2015 election, pollsters overestimated Labour’s support, and an inquiry last year 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 backing from some wealthy pensioners in areas that are safely Conservative, if she gains the backing of Labour voters in tight races.

Nevertheless, the Conservatives were determined to shift the conversation away from the policy and back to their preferred message: May versus Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

‘Fundamental Contrast’

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 lengthy Facebook post Saturday, May warned that a lot is “at stake” in the election and said the U.K. has “great challenges,” including the need to provide “security for older people while being fair to the young”.

“If I lose just six seats I will lose this election, and Jeremy Corbyn will be sitting down to negotiate with the presidents, prime ministers and chancellors of Europe,” May wrote. Labour’s leader would “bring chaos to Britain,” she said.

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. ”