The Conservative election campaign foundered, at least in part, upon its manifesto plans for social care and older people. Not only were they unpopular, they were incoherent.
It was as though someone had chosen ingredients from a recipe book at random – accepting one proposal from the Dilnot report (increasing the ‘floor’ at which people pay for their own social care costs) but rejecting another (the cap on lifetime costs) and throwing in a small but critical change to the means test (making housing assets count towards the costs of home care as well as residential care).
As an extra side dish, there was the decision to means test Winter Fuel Payment, ignoring the reality that there is no current way of doing that without hitting some of the very poorest pensioners in the country.
The resulting mess was not so much unpalatable as inedible. And not just to the opposition parties and the public – even Conservatives choked on plans that would mean thousands more people losing their homes to pay for their care. In their failure to protect homeowners, the proposals were fundamentally ‘un-Tory’.
A hurried return to the kitchen – reinstating the idea of a cap – did nothing to stem the sense of incoherence and chaos.
But the strong sense that – at last – social care is being seen as a genuinely critical electoral issue should bring with it a sense of unease. There is a real risk that parties draw from this debacle the lesson that social care is too difficult to tackle. Alongside Brexit, it becomes seen as the 21st century equivalent of Home Rule or the Corn Laws, an issue over which a party can be broken.
Almost as bad would be to draw the lesson that that the only option is simply to inject more money into the current system. While more funding is certainly necessary, it is by no means sufficient to create a system that is fair and comprehensive but also – in the longer run - sustainable.
The reality of an ageing population is that the costs of social care will increase and we urgently need to find agreement about how those additional costs should be split between the individual and the state. That will require some tough thinking and it would be a tragedy if the more radical ideas – like those, for example in the Kings Fund’s Barker Report – were to be ignored again because parties fear the repercussions of deep thinking on social care.
How best to take this forward? Both the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats committed in their manifestoes to working on a cross-party basis to find the answer. Before the election, led by Norman Lamb, MPs on all sides had already met Theresa May to call for this sort of approach. The time is surely ripe for the Conservatives to back it.