Theresa May said the General Election is a “question of trust” as she sought to defend her dramatic U-turn on social care policy amid signs that controversy over a so-called “dementia tax” was hurting Conservatives in the polls.
The Prime Minister, who suffered a bruising day after accepting that there would be a cap on care costs just days after the Tory manifesto rejected an overall limit, tried to shift attention back on to the looming Brexit talks - warning of “dire consequences” if there was a bad deal.
But she was repeatedly challenged over the social care issue, with the Liberal Democrats accusing her of “panic” while Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said her Government was mired in “chaos and confusion”.
And the PM came under immediate pressure to reveal the proposed level of the cap, with rivals pointing out that it could still result in elderly people being asked to stump up six-figure sums for lengthy and complex care for conditions such as dementia.
Mrs May denied she had performed a U-turn, insisting that “nothing has changed” from the principles set out in the manifesto, but there would now be an “absolute limit” on the amount people would have to pay.
But she refused to give details of the cap, or the number of pensioners who would face losing up to £300 a year in winter fuel payments under another aspect of her shake-up.
In a major BBC interview she said: “What I’ve done today is I’ve seen the scaremongering, frankly, that we’ve seen over the weekend.
“I’ve seen the way that Jeremy Corbyn wants to sneak into Number 10 by playing on the fears of older and vulnerable people, and I’ve clarified what we will be putting in the green paper which I set out in the manifesto.”
She said the consultation document will include the “concept of an absolute limit on the cost that people have to pay” - a cap - so “we’re protecting people for the future and we’re providing a system that provides sustainability in our social care for the future”.
Mrs May warned that without taking action to reform the social care system it would “collapse”.
The Prime Minister - who repeated her “strong and stable leadership” mantra despite the criticism over the U-turn - tried to make Brexit the central issue in voters’ minds.
She said: “I called an election on this whole issue of trust, because the question that people face is, who do they trust to take this country though the Brexit negotiations?
“Who do they trust to face up to the presidents, the prime ministers, the chancellors of Europe and the European Commission?
“Who do they trust to get the best deal for the UK? They have to decide, ‘cause it’s only going to be one of two people. It’s either me or Jeremy Corbyn.
“And the question for everybody on June 8 is, who do they trust to get the deal for the UK.”
In the interview with Andrew Neil she said she would “definitely stay for the next parliament” if returned to Number 10 on June 8, but refused to be drawn on what she would do in 2022, when she will be 65.
“I haven’t got through this election yet. I’m focusing on this election,” she said.
She was repeatedly challenged on her failure to cut net migration to the tens of thousands as home secretary, but insisted that voters faced a choice between the Tories, who believe that we should “work to control immigration”, and Labour “who believe that you should have uncontrolled immigration”.
Mrs May’s social care climbdown came after a clutch of opinion polls showed Labour eating into her party’s lead.
The latest, by Survation for ITV’s Good Morning Britain, showed Conservatives on 43%, down five points on the previous week, while Labour were up five on 34%.
The Prime Minister said: “There’s only one poll that counts in any election campaign. That’s the one that takes place on June 8.”
Tim Farron branded the U-turn “May’s manifesto meltdown”, but said it changed nothing for families concerned about the bill for care for elderly relatives.
“As Theresa May has made clear herself, nothing has changed and her heartless dementia tax remains in place,” said the Liberal Democrat leader.
“This is a cold and calculated attempt to pull the wool over people’s eyes. Theresa May still wants to take older people’s homes to fund social care.”,
Mr Corbyn questioned whether the Prime Minister’s shift of position amounted to a U-turn.
He said it was a “triumph of spin over reality” because “you read what she has actually said and it is exactly the same as what they said last week, but they are pretending it’s something different”.
He added: “It’s bad enough making false promises but it’s even worse doing a false handbrake turn when the vehicle carries on in the same direction.”