By Chaminda Jayanetti
It's easy to blame everything that has gone wrong in this shambolic Conservative election campaign on Theresa May's close adviser Nick Timothy.
After all, he was the genius behind the dementia tax, disastrously scribbled into the manifesto at the last moment with no Cabinet input. Like other policy 'gurus' – think Steve Hilton and Lord Glasman – he exudes an aura of faux-intellectualism and a middle class politico's approach to guessing what 'real' people think that is as accurate as a game of pin the tail on the donkey. Plus he looks like a Victorian apothecary.
Meanwhile the chancellor Philip Hammond generally gets a good press. Right wingers like him for his fiscal hawkishness, left-leaning Remainers for being the only grown-up in the cabinet when it comes to Brexit.
He's been sidelined during the campaign by a prime minister reportedly ready to replace him and was struggling before it, so it seems odd to pin the Tories' troubles on a man with so little influence. Indeed, the reason he seems headed for the exit is because he and Timothy clash regularly.
But while some of these clashes are Brexit-related, others are about money. After Hammond's Budget this spring descended into farce over a U-turn on increasing National Insurance payments, a Treasury official told the Telegraph:
"They [Theresa May's advisers] would have increased capital gains tax and done goodness knows what to make Philip Hammond look like a Corbynista.
“Nick Timothy is the one who loves taxes and he loves taxes on the rich because he thinks that’s good for the JAMs ['Just About Managing'] nowadays. That’s the impression I get."
During the election campaign itself, the two are said to have clashed bitterly over whether to maintain the 'lock' on income tax and National Insurance rates. The inclusion of the lock in the 2015 manifesto forced the Budget U-turn, and the pledge has been dropped this time around.
Personal taxation is traditionally a thorny area for Labour – witness the 1992 'Tory tax bombshell' that helped sink Neil Kinnock's campaign – but this time it's caused more problems for the Conservatives.
The party has been unable to guarantee that taxes won't rise, while defence secretary Michael Fallon's pledge not to increase income tax rates for higher earners fell apart hours later when May failed to endorse it.
Meanwhile Labour has managed to avoid a tax-and-spend bombshell by simply taxing the rich and big business and explicitly sparing everyone else. The populist – and popular – pledge to soak the richest five per cent of earners while protecting everyone else has allowed them to pledge vote-winning funding for cash-starved schools and hospitals and the party's headline vow to axe tuition fees.
Looking "like a Corbynista" is a lot better than looking like you don't know what you're doing.
When blue turns to grey
The centrist pretensions of May's domestic agenda have been undermined by a lack of funding, leaving it as empty rhetoric for biddable journalists. We still don't really know May's economic worldview, because she hasn't backed her rhetoric up with money, leaving her to parrot tired lines about magic money trees. Whether that is through restriction or choice remains unclear.
What would the Conservatives do if they were willing to tax the rich, or slow down deficit reduction, to spend more? Given May's and Timothy's politics, it's entirely possible they'd throw it all away – or fund a 'marriage allowance', as social conservatives call it.
But the NHS urgently needs funds, and all May offered was an opaque, inadequate and uncosted £8bn a year. Social care needs funds, so May and Timothy came up with the dementia tax. Schools are desperately short of funds, but May only pledged half of what is needed, funded by axing universal free school meals – leaving her open to attack both on school cuts and on school meals.
It's highly unlikely May would have properly funded any of these services had she been able to flex some fiscal muscle – properly funding services is not something Tory governments ever do. But she could at the very least have avoided some of the landmines that detonated in the days after the manifesto was published, or thrown in extra funding or added sweeteners to make it more sellable.
But Hammond's obsession with eliminating a deficit that the country has grown tired of caring about has tied her hands. Her manifesto is full of gruel served on silver platters, best summed up by how the headline proposal for 'workers' rights' turned out to be the right to take a year's unpaid leave to care for a relative – presumably to avoid the dementia tax.
David Cameron and George Osborne could get away with their ridiculous promises in 2015 – the cuts had been dumped on the poorest and easiest targets, with the A&E services and schools funding that most people pay attention to receiving more protection. The public was still worried about government debt.
Two years on and the wheels are coming off. The NHS is crumbling. Schools are begging. Adult care failings are headline news. Police and fire services are stretched. There is barely a single area of publicly funded activity that is functioning as it should.
In response to this crescendo of crises, May lacks style, Timothy lacks guile, and Hammond allows them no substance. The chancellor wins the backing of deficit hawks and Hard Remainers, but in truth he is the fading last word of a failing mantra.
Brexit might get May over the line on Thursday. But after that she must start again – this time with a chancellor whose worldview would pass the Turing test. Anything less, and it won't just be the Conservatives' floundering credibility that collapses.
Chaminda Jayanetti is covering the general election for Politics.co.uk. He tweets here.
The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.