The Guardian view on the Tory manifesto: dangerous despite its caution | Editorial

The Conservative manifesto launched today looks at first glimpse decidedly modest, even unremarkable. It is so by design. It is intended to reassure, whereas Labour’s programme last week was meant to rouse. There is, however, something ambitious about it: the scale of the dishonesty at its heart.

The message – delivered somewhat perfunctorily by the prime minister in Telford – is simple: yes to Brexit, no to tax rises, and God save you all from Jeremy Corbyn. There was no attempt to even approach the bonanza which Mr Corbyn boldly promised for public services last week – the biggest hike in current spending in peacetime, said the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). The Conservative offer is just £3bn a year to Labour’s £83bn.

The Tory document is defined above all by such caution: “The lack of significant policy action is remarkable,” concluded Paul Johnson, the IFS’s director. Labour sought to change the game; the Conservative drafters to keep things on the rails. They are haunted by 2017, when Theresa May snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, aided by a manifesto including social care reforms immediately dubbed the dementia tax. The polls give them reason to smile – one analysis published at the weekend suggested they could win a 48 seat majority – and time is ticking on: postal votes go out next week. Nonetheless, the campaign is only halfway and voters have so far seemed immersed in general ennui and distaste for both Boris Johnson and his rival.

There is a scattering of retail offers, mostly for the Tory base: the promise of £1bn to boost childcare provision might have sounded more striking had the manifesto not pledged twice as much to fix potholes. Headline pledges on services hardly amount to a new beginning: they try to undo some of the more conspicuous damage seen under the Conservatives. The 20,000 police officers are replacing those who already vanished from forces. Tens of thousands more nurses are needed because of the disastrous impact of axing nursing bursaries. And the pledge of 40 new hospitals, repeated in the manifesto, actually means building six, with seed funding for others.

The big lie, however, is encapsulated in the document’s title: “Get Brexit Done. Unleash Britain’s Potential.” Like Take Back Control, it is an effective slogan, appealing not only to hardcore leavers but to a broader population, tired of years of bickering and stasis, who want it all to be over. The problem is that it bears no relation to reality. Far from allowing the UK to wash its hands of the whole affair, passing Mr Johnson’s deal will pull it further into the quagmire. Signing the withdrawal agreement is only the start.

To claim, as the chancellor Sajid Javid did, that an EU-UK trade deal can be done “certainly by the end of next year” is not disingenous but absurd – unless the plan is to say yes to everything the 27 request. Even then an extension would probably be necessary. Canada took seven years to sign off the limited agreement which Mr Johnson cites; it sends the EU just 8% of its exports, against the UK’s 45%.

The triple tax lock would constrain a Conservative government anyway. But it would have no headroom whatsoever in a post-Brexit environment. Mr Johnson’s deal is expected to cost the UK economy more than his predecessor’s, and as much as £70bn over the next decade compared with remaining in the EU, according to a leading thinktank. Britain’s potential will be smothered, not unleashed. What would come next? Probably the deregulatory free-for-all that the Tory right have long craved. Manifestos are supposed to show what’s on offer, but this is not a proper menu and the hefty bill for the inedible meal you never ordered may be arriving soon.

The danger is that Tory tactics may prove effective at the polls. It would suit the prime minister if his ideas avoided close scrutiny. There is still time for others to deprive him of that privilege.


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