Just four days after the Tory manifesto ditched plans for a cap on care costs, the Prime Minister announced that proposals for a maximum payment would be included in a consultation following the 8 June general election.
The Liberal Democrats accused Mrs May of “panic”, while Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said her government was mired in “chaos and confusion”.
And the Prime Minister 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.
Thursday’s Tory manifesto set out plans to include the value of elderly people’s properties when calculating how much they should pay towards the cost of care at home, as well as residential care. And it guaranteed that no-one would see the value of their estate shrink below £100,000 as a result of care costs.
But Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said at the time that it was “completely explicit” that the idea of a cap had been dropped.
A cap was the central recommendation of the 2011 Dilnot Report into care funding and was due for introduction at a level of £72,000 in 2020, but Mr Hunt said it was not “fair” as it would result in people with multimillion-pound homes being subsidised by taxpayers who were struggling to get by.
In Scotland social care is devolved to Holyrood and personal and nursing care is free for those who are eligible.
Speaking at the launch of the Tories’ Welsh manifesto in Wrexham, Mrs May said: “This manifesto says that we will come forward with a consultation paper, a government green paper.
“And that consultation will include an absolute limit on the amount people have to pay for their care costs.”
Appearing visibly angry, she accused Mr Corbyn of resorting to “fake claims, fear and scaremongering” over the impact of her plans and chided reporters who asked about a dementia tax for “using terms that have been used by the Labour Party to try and scare people in this country”.
The scale of Conservative concern about the phrase – which featured in the front page headline of the usually Tory-backing Mail on Sunday – was reflected in an advert taken out by the party on Google, which directed users who searched for “dementia tax” to a webpage explaining their policy.
Mrs May denied making a U-turn, saying: “Nothing has changed, nothing has changed.”
She said: “We have not changed the principles of the policies we set out in our manifesto. Those policies remain exactly the same. What we have done, which other parties have signally failed to do, is to recognise the challenge that we face, to respect the needs and concerns of the British people and to provide a long-term plan for sustainable social care.”
Later, in a BBC interview with Andrew Neil, Mrs May again sought to defend the development as she re-stated her view that the principle of the manifesto policy had remained the same.
But Mr Corbyn turned her oft-repeated catchphrase against her as he said: “This isn’t strong and stable, this is chaos.”
He said: “The Prime Minister, instead of blaming me, should look to herself and look to the policy, or lack of policy, that’s she’s put forward.”
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon tweeted: “PM not so strong and stable after all ... and can’t be trusted to protect pensioners.”
Mrs May’s climbdown came after a clutch of opinion polls showed Labour eating into her party’s lead.