Some say that manifestos are indispensable, because they can be used to hold a political party to account, and some that they’re pointless, because so few read them. But whatever your view, the main commitments of the three main parties in 2015 will be studied closely by their MPs and the media if a hung Parliament is likely then, as it could well be. The party leaderships will be put under intense pressure over which parts of their manifestos are negotiable and which are not – over where exactly “red lines” will be drawn.
This is the context in which to see today’s meeting of the Conservative Parliamentary Party, in which it will be briefed about how the manifesto will be drawn up. The framework is substantially as has been reported by James Forsyth. There will be four or five policy commissions, covering the economy, home affairs, foreign affairs, the public services, and the environment plus local government. This structure mirrors five backbench policy committees set up by the 1922 Committee earlier in this Parliament. A Cabinet Minister, the relevant ’22 committee policy chairman and member of the Policy Board will lead each commission. The Prime Minister’s Policy Unit will staff them.
Downing Street says that these new commissions won’t be able to work as they please, but will operate within a framework set by the Party leadership: the two main themes will be our old friends “Aspiration” and “the Global Race”. A question which follows is whether or not the commissions really will help shape the manifesto, or will simply be window-dressing. Certainly, reports about the Policy Board, itself set up partly to help shape the manifesto, are mixed.
It was sold to the Parliamentary Party as a means of involving it more in policy-making. One view is that its members are essentially being used as diplomatic go-betweens, liaising with the ’22 and other interest groups, but have no real power to draw up policy, either for this Parliament or for the next manifesto. That to date has rested with the Unit rather than the Board, and there is a “Chinese Wall” between the two. The door in that wall is Jo Johnson, Boris’s MP brother, who chairs the Board and heads the unit. “The board doesn’t really do policy and the unit lacks the capacity for research,” a source told me who is involved in the process and isn’t a fan.
But when all is said and done, and whether the Board or Unit are work well or badly, the new manifesto-making scheme doesn’t differ much from what happened in government under Margaret Thatcher or John Major. The ’22 has always had committees and put forward ideas. And the manifesto has always been drafted by a tight-knit group of politically motivated men, with the leadership having the final say. Senior figures on the ’22 are giving the plan a guarded welcome.
It goes almost without saying that the better relations are between Number 10 and Tory MPs, the more smoothly the exercise will work. These aren’t nearly as bad as they were last spring, when the same-sex marriage row was raging. Downing Street has taken recent comfort from the way in which Conservative MPs turned en masse on Adam Afriyie over his EU referendum plan (which is due to be debated in the Commons on Friday). None the less, distrust between Cameron and many Tory MPs runs very deep: remember his attempt in effect to abolish the ’22 altogether. I wonder what will happen if there’s a big push from its committees for a particular policy proposal, and it doesn’t find favour with Number Ten.
Some of the ’22 committee chairmen are clever, forceful, experienced and know both their own minds and how the Parliamentary Party works – John Redwood, who heads the ’22’s economic affairs committee, for example. Finally, don’t forget the Chancellor. No Conservative manifesto will be written for 2015 without George Osborne having a major hand in it.