Will Theresa May panic and protect the triple lock?

Jeremy Corbyn is surging in the polls and Theresa May is having a disastrous election campaign that could even mean she loses her job.

That’s the forming consensus today, anyway. You Gov is predicting the Tories will lose 21 seats and their majority  on 8 June. Why is the once-dominant May wobbling and the once-shambolic Corbyn beginning to rise?

It still appears unlikely that Labour will gain any new seats, for now. And here’s the reason.

Latest YouGov polling shows 73% of 18-24 year olds support Labour compared to 15% who support the Tories. Only 44% of that group vote in 2015.

By contrast, 64% of over-65s support the Tories while only 20% support Labour. By comparison, the Tories had a 24% lead over Labour in 2015. This is an astonishing gap when you consider the policies of the parties. The over-65s were the highest turnout voter age group in 2015.

May’s pensioner firewall remains strong, for now.

The Tories are running, as Sir Humphrey would say, a very brave manifesto that would end the triple lock on state pensions, remove winter fuel allowance from millions of pensioners and strikes a tougher line on social care than Dilnot.

It is a genuinely bold, even progressive, set of policy ideas that tackles inter-generational fairness and moves towards redistributing wealth from young to old.

May’s calculation is that she can give herself some wiggle room to cut spending on wealthy pensioners because when given a choice between her and Corbyn, they will stick with her. The triple lock will cost the government purse tens of billions over the next parliament so it is quite a prize if she can pull it off. And it comes at a time when the average pensioner has more disposable income than the average under 30.

But here’s the kicker. Corbyn has skillfully spotted the weakness and driven it home. That’s why he is having a great campaign.

Labour has promised to maintain the triple lock and winter fuel allowance and flirts with the idea of fully state funded social care.

The party also co-opted the so-called “dementia tax” label to sum up May’s new social care policy. In a nutshell, the Tory manifesto increases the deferred payments limit on social care funding from £23,000 to £100,000. That means anyone who needs care will have to use their savings – including property and assets – until their last £100,000. They can also use the equity release-style scheme to keep their property while alive.

It’s a more generous system that today but less generous than Andrew Dilnot’s 2012 commission on social care funding, which proposed a cap on care funding between £36,000 and £100,000. The government settled on £72,000, which was due to come into force this year until it was kicked into the long grass and has now been seemingly abandoned.

A cap would limit the amount anyone would pay to £72,000 therefore levelling the playing field for all conditions regardless of length.

The dementia tax was dreamt up because without cap then the longer you live, the more you pay in social care costs. So if you have cancer and die within a year then you keep most of your assets as you pay less for care. If you have dementia and need a decade of care then it is likely you will end up with the bare minimum.

May realised her policy was causing waves among older voters and said it was now her plan to introduce a cap, without specifying the level. Disingenuously, she claimed that nothing had changed from her manifesto.

Instead of bravely tackling inter-generational unfairness, May had now cast herself in the worst of all worlds. She has upset older voters, dredged up a desperately difficult policy area in social care funding and lost her mantle for so-called strong and stable leadership.

She got the fear. She feared older voters would turn on her and look again at Corbyn’s manifesto of goodies for the over-65s.

David Cameron got the fear in 2010 and 2015. In 2010, he promised to protect all pensioner benefits on a whim when challenged by Gordon Brown in a TV debate.

In 2015, Cameron was more strategic by promising to keep the triple lock, introduce high-yield state-backed pensioner savings accounts and unveiled popular pension freedoms. He didn’t take a chance in 2015 and he won against all odds.

Now May has crumbled on social care out of the fear of the grey vote turning, what else we she U-turn on?

As YouGov polling shows, her older support appears to be holding up for now but for how much longer? When their careers are on the line then politicians panic. It will only take a couple more bad polls to get May seriously worried.

Will she support the triple lock? Could she abandon plans to scrap winter fuel allowance? Could she throw out some new goodies to reassure the oldies?

There are other ways to address the problem such as concentrating on tough lines over Brexit, national security or immigration and attracting Ukip voters, which are disproportionately older and more likely to vote.

Strong and stable, it is not. But Theresa May has got a fight on her hands and locking in her pensioner firewall may be the best way to secure victory in this election.

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