Christopher Howarth is a senior researcher working in the House of Commons. Prior to this he worked for Open Europe, as a Conservative Foreign Affairs Adviser and senior researcher to a Shadow Europe Minister.
Tidying my flat last week, I came across my copy of the Conservative’s 2010 manifesto: Invitation to join the Government of Britain. At the time of that election, I was working for a shadow Cabinet Minister who was running around marginal seats when he received a text message summoning him the next day to Battersea Power Station for the manifesto’s unveiling. Whether it bore any resemblance to the previous drafts I had seen, I have no idea. I never read it, or the huge ring binder of explanatory notes that accompanied him back. This was ditched shortly afterwards.
It was not just that the “invitation” from David Cameron seemed unlikely to apply to anyone (Lib Dems aside), let alone a Eurosceptic Shadow Minister for Europe (or indeed his staff), but that it was obvious it was unlikely to play any part in the campaign or subsequent government. And so it turned out. So why should we be interested in the 2017 manifesto? The reason is Brexit.
For Brexit, the Conservative Party manifesto will play two very important roles. Firstly, to appeal to voters that have not traditionally supported the Conservatives, but voted Leave and want to be sure that the Prime Minister will deliver for them.
Secondly, it has a very important quasi-constitutional role vis a vis the House of Lords under the Addison-Salisbury Convention. If a proposal for legislation is in the manifesto, then the convention is that it has to be accepted by the Lords. We have less than two years to leave the EU, and getting the right legislation on the books before then will require at least an acquiescent House of Lords.
Winning the election
There is little correlation between those who voted Leave and those who voted Conservative. For the only major party fully committed to making a success of Brexit, this leaves a huge opportunity to connect with new communities. This requires policies that respect the vote and secondly deliver the benefits of Brexit for these communities and potentially make the electoral realignment permanent.
Respect the vote: Leaving the European Union
The Prime Minister has already committed herself to all of these key elements in her Lancaster House speech and subsequent White Paper. Leaving the European Court of Justice, the internal market, the Customs Union and taking back control of our borders, trade policy and money are already Government policy and will no doubt be in the manifesto.
Using our new powers to deliver the benefits of Brexit
Simply committing to Brexit is, however, not enough on its own. The Conservatives need to explain what to do with our new powers. Policies are needed to reassure and deliver tangible gains. Here are some:
- A new UK immigration policy: Leaving the EU will allow the UK to limit immigration from the EU. This was a key driver for the Leave vote in in a country that has seen two decades of mass immigration and the resultant cultural, housing, wage, job and public services pressures. A new, popular policy should aim to reduce numbers in conjunction with a new drive to up-skill domestic workers to take advantage of new opportunities and provide new housing to alleviate the pressure already in the system. In this way, a new immigration policy linked to skills and housing could demonstrate tangible benefits to communities and sectors that have lost out over the decades.
- A UK regional policy: The EU did provide some funding for the UK regions. This will end. This presents an opportunity for the UK Government to fund new and more effective infrastructure or business-friendly policies in the regions that create a closer relationship with the UK Government than the distant one they had with the EU.
- A UK fishing and agricultural framework: The UK will need to devise its own agricultural support programme to replace the EU’s CAP, support farmers, maintain fair competition and deliver public goods such as landscape stewardship. This will need to be set at a UK level, but with greater input from the devolved administrations than that currently set in Brussels. The UK will also require a new fishing policy, taking back control of our waters out to 200 miles.
- A new UK trade policy: The manifesto will no doubt commit the UK to an optimistic policy of trade agreements with the EU and other states. This can also show the benefits that a UK policy can have for development. In contrast to the EU, the UK’s policy could work in conjunction with international aid to deliver real benefits for poorer Commonwealth and other states.
The Addison-Salisbury convention
While setting out policies that respect the Brexit vote might help win votes, it also has a quasi-legal importance with regards to the House of Lords.
The Conservatives are in a minority in a House of Lords dominated by Liberal Democrat, Labour and Crossbench opponents of Brexit. While the Lords are too sensible to oppose Brexit head-on, they have the power and potential to delay and disrupt vital legislation. However, under the post-war convention if a proposal for legislation was in a governing party’s election manifesto then it should be passed.
In addition to the primary legislation to implement the policies above, the Government is committed to one more vital piece of legislation – the Great Repeal Bill. The manifesto will have to set out enough of the workings of the Bill so as to be able to use the Addison-Salisbury convention if necessary.
The Bill will provide legislative continuity by transposing EU laws in the relevant areas into UK law. It will also, for completeness, repeal the 1972 European Communities Act. This is a huge legislative task that would be made even more complex if the Lords were able to object at every stage. While framing the wording, due regard will also have to be given to the fact that the convention does not cover secondary legislation.
Lastly, the manifesto may wish to set out that a vote against any of the component parts of the Brexit legislative programme will not stop or delay our departure. While the Lords will get a vote on any new trade deal we are able to agree with the EU, it must be clear that a vote against cannot and will not be interpreted as a vote to stay inside.
Sealing the deal
Securing a large majority on an optimistic Conservative manifesto that delivers for the majority that voted Leave and the larger majority that wish to make a success of our new relationship will ensure that the House of Lords will allow the programme to pass into law without hindrance. It will also help in the UK’s negotiations with the EU.
While, in the UK, those that think Brexit will be obstructed, reversed or watered down in Parliament are a dwindling band, in EU policy circles there are many who still cling to this belief. Those who believe that obstructing talks or legislation will lead to a UK change of mind are pursuing a perilous policy. A new mandate will bring them to their senses and show to the world that in the Prime Minister they have a leader with a clear programme for Brexit and a new relationship of equals with the EU. Importantly, she will have a Conservative Parliamentary majority, elected on a manifesto to deliver.