“Nobody reads them, everybody breaks them” – you’d be hard pressed to find anyone with anything better to say about election manifestos. But as Theresa May starts her campaign to win her own mandate from the UK electorate, her manifesto pledges with respect to both the Brexit negotiations and the public finances will be unusually important. This special general election bulletin examines the issues surrounding both sets of commitments.
Calling an election must have seemed an excellent bet to the Prime Minister, given the weakness of the official opposition, the small power base of the other parties and the Government’s hefty opinion poll lead, offering the prize of a bigger majority, a new five-year mandate and the removal of a number of the current constraints. She correctly judged that the 2011 Fixed-Term Parliaments Act would prove no barrier, leading some to argue it should be repealed altogether.
But elections are always a gamble. Voters can be grumpy about unexpected demands that they turn out to vote in an election, as neatly illustrated when the protest “Not another one” by “Brenda in Bristol”, the vox pop broadcast by the BBC last week, instantly went viral. Low turnout can make a mockery of opinion polls, unreliable as they are to begin with.
So this raises questions for Mrs May that go beyond Brexit to how she intends to govern: how much risk is she prepared to take to get exactly the kind of mandate she wants? Put another way, how will she trade her desire for a bigger majority in the House of Commons against her need for a mandate to do some difficult things? Or put differently again, if the point of Brexit is to regain control of “our own money, our own laws and our own borders”, what does she want to use that control to do?
The Westminster difficulties Mrs May talked about in her Downing Street statement stemmed from two “mandate” problems she wants an election to solve. One is that while the referendum gave (by a small margin), a mandate to leave the European Union, it was silent on what kind of relationship the UK was to have thereafter. This gave her backbenchers in the Commons (where her majority is small) reason to argue, and the House of Lords (where she does not have a majority at all) a justification for demanding that the outcome of the negotiations be brought back to Parliament, and indeed for intervening on other Brexit issues such as the rights of EU citizens in the UK.
Although the Lords didn’t push its arguments on the Article 50 Bill a second time, it was a sign of future trouble she would like to neutralise by an election, since the Lords (usually) sticks to the convention that it does not vote against the winning party’s manifesto. At the same time, without a “mandate” for her brand of Brexit, further down the track either “soft” or “hard” faction in her Commons party might start playing up too. Now they will be bound by the manifesto.
Mrs May’s other mandate problem was with the rest of government policy, where she both lacked a personal election imprimatur as PM and was lumbered with another PM’s manifesto, as she and her Chancellor found to their cost at Budget time. The number of no-go areas for policy change have been ratcheted up through political commitments from election to election, making the task of managing public finances, let alone financing her own pet projects, almost impossible.
Whatever her opponents say, the election will not “use up valuable negotiating time”. The EU27 guidelines will not be approved until the end of the month and then they have to be turned into negotiation directives for the European Commission. In addition we have the change of leadership in France and the forthcoming German election. So despite the Brussels leaks and sabre rattling by the European Parliament, nothing important will be decided for some time. Indeed the election will give the civil service time to get on with analysing the implications of possible deals, including no deal.
But the election manifesto offers Mrs May something between an opportunity and a necessity to spell out what her objectives are, and to give some guarantees. No doubt she will continue to try to maintain negotiating freedom, but on some areas she will be pushed for specifics, both on what she will try to get in a “deal” and what she will do with post-Brexit policy-making freedom. Just for starters take the following, on many of which Frontier bulletins have already outlined the issues:
Though this has started as a Brexit election, campaigns quickly develop a life of their own and prove hard to steer. In any case, many of the constraints Mrs May has been struggling against in policy-making are in fact home-made, and she can use the election to remove as many as she dares.
On top of this short list, there will of course be all the usual election pressures for spending commitments, above all on health and social care. Her back benches will be putting pressure on her to boost defence spending. And, of course she will want to put her own stamp on her manifesto with policies such as grammar schools and commitments intended to improve the standard of living of the “just managing”, such as the promised cap on standard energy tariffs. Time may constrain the amount that can be added new, but as the Treasury knows, elections rarely come cheap.
The general presumption that Mrs May will have little difficulty in winning her gamble means other parties’ policies are mostly being seen as a challenge to her rather than a programme for government. But although there has not been time for the usual discussions between senior opposition spokesmen and senior civil servants, departments will still have to prepare for alternative outcomes by modelling opposition policies. From what the protagonists have said, however, it does not look as if they are going to have to model as many possible coalition options as they did in 2015.
And meanwhile what the impact of the election will be on Scottish politics is very hard to call. At this stage it looks as if the Conservatives will gain seats in Scotland, while UKIP will lose votes across the board – but who gets them is not yet clear. Labour will be the big loser and the Liberal Democrats will regain seats in London and the South West. All this adds up to a sizeable working majority for Mrs May. But recent elections have taught us that we should not exclude the possibility that events might interfere with the consensus forecast. It’s game on, but at the moment it looks very one-sided.