Will Tanner – Top Adviser to Theresa May

Luke Hallam 1 November 2018

You may not have heard of him, but Will Tanner has been at the heart of British politics for the past five years. From 2013 to 2017 he was a close adviser to Theresa May in the Home Office, before becoming the deputy head of Number 10’s policy unit when she became Prime Minister. Now he is the director of the think-tank Onward, a centre-leaning forum for generating policies in line with “mainstream conservatism”. He was recently hosted by Trinity College’s Politics Society, where he answered audience questions surrounding his role in drafting the Conservative Party’s controversial 2017 general election manifesto, Theresa May’s vision for Britain, and, of course, Brexit.

I was able to ask the first question, and decided to raise the issue of the negative reaction to Universal Credit, the government’s amalgamation of six pre-existing welfare payments into one. This heated debate has been felt in Cambridge – CUSU Disabled Students’ officer Emrys Travis was recently reported in Varsity as calling the system: “the epitome of a litany of government cuts and incompetence”. Will began by acknowledging that the implementation has been far from smooth. “Universal Credit is one of those very well-intentioned reforms that is absolutely right in principle, but has been delivered very badly in practise […] The big issue politically is as a result of the 2015 budget changes, which have cut the work allowances and introduced extra waiting days, and basically took a lot of money out of the system which means that, instead of everyone benefitting […] there are quite a large number of families – millions of families – who will lose out.” Yet, he argued that there is a “very good reason” why welfare spending has taken a hit over the past few years. A key problem with the system, he tells me, has been the centralised approach to its roll-out. “Unfortunately, Universal Credit will be fixed through 1000 small little bitty things that no-one really understands, rather than big expansive changes that politicians have been arguing for. And I think there’s a really, really big danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Universal Credit is a good thing, we just need to make it work properly, rather than what Labour are arguing for which is chucking the whole thing, without any reasonable alternative – they literally have no alternative […] We need to depoliticise the issue.”

Will has been at the centre of Conservative policy formulation under Theresa May, and this was the theme of many of the questions he went on to answer. “The proudest thing I ever did in government was something you will never have heard of […] we created something called Alternative Places of Safety. It was £15 million, so in the scheme of government nothing, literally change down the back of the sofa for the NHS, and we created health-led safe spaces for people with mental health problems, so that they don’t get taken to a police cell when they are in crisis.” The results of this system have been remarkable. As he explained, through the operation of the “12 or 15” of these centres up and down the country, “we reduced the number of people with mental health problems being taken to police cells by something like 85% in the last 4 years.”

Nevertheless, Will must be painfully aware that it is not the successful policies that make the headline news. Famously, the Conservative’s 2017 manifesto contained a new plan for funding social care costs by making everyone with combined assets of more that £100,000 pay for their care. The scheme – dubbed a ‘dementia tax’ by pundits – was widely panned, and eventually dropped. Will was personally involved in the decision to keep the plan in the manifesto, and was quick to defend it. “At the heart of it was a progressive principle that if you have more wealth, then you should probably contribute more […] We set the floor deliberately high – £100,000 for a property, so that something like half of the population would be insulated from paying for their care costs.” He admits that, because the election was called so quickly, not all the details were fully prepared. “When journalists started asking difficult questions we didn’t have very good answers […] In hindsight I think the U-turn – [May’s] ‘nothing has changed’ speech – was bad, because it undermined her brand [as someone who] told the hard truth. The thing about that manifesto was that it told a lot of hard truths. We had the triple lock on pensions going, we had free school meals being cut to just means tested […] we had the education budget being at not quite real-terms levels. All these are things that people had deliberately not touched for three or four elections because they knew that they would be very difficult. There’s that old saying ‘campaign in poetry, govern in prose’. It’s true. Don’t load too many difficult hard truths into your manifesto.”

Overall, he believes that the 2017 election was called for the right reasons. “The gamble was that we could afford to lose a few points in order to give ourselves a mandate to do all the things the country should have done years and years ago. That’s a really noble intention – we were naïve perhaps. Also, Labour, in contrast with other elections, basically went full tilt at socialism and they were unabashed […] With Jeremy Corbyn you had somebody who was quite literally promising the world and not thinking he was ever going to have to deliver.”

Finally, an audience member brought up Brexit, the cloud hanging over any discussion of contemporary British politics. “I had a conversation with quite senior people in government recently who said that Brexit takes up between 85 and 90 per cent of government’s time. It will be a hell of a lot worse if we enter into ‘no deal’ territory in the next few months.” He laments the fact that “Government doesn’t have the bandwidth do new policy thinking anymore […] I personally think, and when I was in Downing Street I was arguing this, that the only way to do Brexit properly is to treat it as one side of the coin. You have to do the domestic vision alongside. The difficulty is that politics has become so bound up in the individual nuances of people’s individual Brexit position. That psychodrama is taking all of the oxygen out of politics.”

Will Tanner is of a political class that is becoming steadily rarer in today’s world – the moderates. Although many will disagree with what he says, it makes a change from the increasingly polarised tenor of contemporary debate.