With just over two weeks before the UK is due to go to the polls, Boris Johnson unveiled a manifesto that reflected his big gamble: this is a one-issue general election, and the theme is Brexit.
With the coalition of Vote Leave backers appearing to be standing firm behind the Conservative prime minister, Mr Johnson has calculated that he doesn’t really need to win more voters over – he just needs to hold together the band of Brexiteers he’s already built.
And so what was delivered was a slimline manifesto – both metaphorically and literally. Coming in at just 59 pages and packed with pictures, it was not a serious programme for government but rather a document of Brexit rhetoric.
As Paul Johnson, the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, put it: “If a single Budget had contained all these tax and spending proposals we would have been calling it modest. As a blueprint for government the lack of significant policy action is remarkable.”
Mr Johnson has calculated that he doesn’t really need to spell out what he stands for beyond Brexit. That was Theresa May’s fateful error in 2017, when she used her manifesto to set out a set of political principles and serious policies for government only to suffer a fierce backlash over her social care policy and a big drop in support in the polls.
Instead, Mr Johnson is offering not much at all beyond “getting Brexit done” by 31 January. He is betting that his Brexit election pitch trumps Jeremy Corbyn’s austerity one.
The two offers outlined over the past week by the Conservatives and Labour could not be more different.
Contained in Mr Johnson’s manifesto are targeted pledges of education spending, nurses, police and hospitals. But the overall package is piecemeal. By 2023-24, the Conservatives will be spending an extra £2.9bn a year on day-to-day expenditure. That compares with an extra £82.9bn in the Labour manifesto.
Mr Corbyn is offering public sector workers a 5% pay rise after a decade of austerity which has seen wages fall 3% in real terms. It will cost £5.3bn by 2023-24. Mr Johnson’s big offer is lifting the threshold at which people pay National Insurance contributions at a cost of £2.5bn by 2023-24.
By the end of the parliament, Mr Corbyn is spending an additional £10.8bn on social care, while Mr Johnson has promised to “build a cross-party consensus” to bring forward an answer on how to tackle the crisis.
Labour is promising to spend a further £6.9bn on free dental check-ups, and extra funding for the NHS. Mr Johnson will be spending £1.5bn recruiting 50,000 nurses and creating 50 million more GP appointments.
Where Mr Corbyn has gone big – be it on workers’ pay, homelessness, child poverty, social care – Mr Johnson has gone small.
After a decade of austerity, it is a risk. But the Conservatives have calculated that many voters might think Mr Corbyn’s eye-watering £83bn tax and spending proposals are even more of a risk.
That isn’t to say that Mr Johnson and the Conservatives are particularly liked after a decade of austerity, rather that by turning this into the Brexit election, the prime minister can hope that millions of Vote Leave backs might lend him their vote.
Mr Johnson can’t outspend Mr Corbyn, but he can promise them Brexit. And they believe him.
Professor John Curtice, the pre-eminent psephologist, says Mr Johnson enjoys the backing of two-thirds of Vote Leavers, whereas Jeremy Corbyn has the backing of just two-fifths of Remainers. He will hope those ratios hold. He can ill-afford the Remain vote to coalesce around Labour.
Still 18 days to go, but Labour are struggling to break Mr Johnson’s stride. If it stays this way in the run-up to polling day, he’s heading for a majority and the UK for Brexit.