Editorial Board

Theresa May's Political Malpractice

The Conservative leader’s flip-flop on elder care projects the very opposite of strength and stability.

Nothing to laugh about.

Photographer: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s election campaign has run into a spot of bother. Less than a month ago the Tories were leading Labour by more than 20 percentage points and heading, it seemed, for a landslide victory on June 8. One recent poll has cut that lead to just five points.

Projection Shows U.K. Conservatives May Lose Majority

The setback is May’s fault -- and, oddly enough, has nothing to do with Brexit and Europe, the issue you’d expect to be monopolizing British voters’ attention. Her main mistake was to make a poorly thought-through commitment on social policy, see it angrily denounced, and then perform an immediate U-turn. That’s not good for a campaign organized around the slogan “Strong and stable.”

May’s new policy was on the sensitive topic of long-term care for the elderly. Her predecessor David Cameron had proposed that people would be charged for such care only up to a total outlay of 72,000 pounds ($93,000); beyond that, taxpayers would meet the cost. Instead, May said people would have to pay the full cost so long as the remaining value of their assets (including their house) exceeded 100,000 pounds ($129,000). This change would leave wealthier households facing much higher bills. Outcry ensued as the press took to calling the idea a “dementia tax.”

Notice that May’s proposal was by no means unreasonable. The costs of long-term care are high and rising. The question is how to pay for it.

Capping costs at 72,000 pounds mainly helps not the people receiving care, but their heirs, who can look forward to a bigger inheritance. It’s far from obvious that taxpayers of modest means should be asked to pay higher taxes so that large estates of people in long-term care can pass mostly unimpaired to their legatees. May believed that her approach was fairer. And she had a plausible case.

Yet, instead of deploying it, she folded on the spot. Opposition to the idea should not have surprised her: Voters everywhere, not just in Britain, are wary of policies that burden inheritance. May’s response to this predictable criticism compounded the error:  Her change of mind won’t mollify people opposed to the reform and leaves those who defended it on her behalf stranded. It projects the very opposite of strength and stability.

    --Editors: Clive Crook, Michael Newman

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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