The policy-making machinery for the next election manifesto may be intricate, but it is also serviceable – and working well in most cases. Policy Commissions, on which Conservative Cabinet Ministers, Policy Board members, Policy Unit staff and members of the voluntary party are drawing up proposals. The document itself will doubtless be written by a handful of people in Number 10 and Number 11. But it was ever thus: leaderships have always kept a tight grip on manifestos. In terms of the involvement of MPs and Party members, the current process is an improvement on previous practice.
It is worth noting, therefore, that this structure is not being used for another, and earlier, Tory election manifesto – the one for the European elections that will be fought in little more than eight weeks’ time. David Cameron lays out the bare bones of what it will look like in today’s Sunday Telegraph. The programme is a summary of what we know already. Some of it is vague. (“Powers flowing away from Brussels, not always to it.”) Some of it is ambitious, for which all credit. (“Support for the continued enlargement of the EU to new members but with new mechanisms in place to prevent vast migrations across the Continent.”)
Some of it raises an eyebrow, if not both of them. The Prime Minister wants “our police forces and justice systems able to protect British citizens, unencumbered by unnecessary interference from the European institutions, including the ECHR”. But the Government intends to opt back in to 35 EU law and order measures in the Lisbon Treaty, including the European Arrest Warrant). The pledge in the 2010 manifesto to return social and employment powers isn’t listed. The explanation for this may lie with the inevitable cautionary reference to not laying “Britain’s cards on the table at the outset”. And there is nothing on protecting the interests of non-Eurozone members.
This site has argued consistently that Cameron risks an explosion of anger from MPs and party members (not to mention some Ministers) during the run-up to the election if his renegotiation plan is not set out reasonably soon – at Party Conference in the autumn at the latest. After all, his intention to repatriate powers was a main plank of his Bloomberg Speech, the other being the In/Out referendum by 2017, on which his article concentrates this morning. Indeed, the main intention of the piece clearly is – in the wake of Miliband setting out his own view – to hammer home the line from Downing Street and CCHQ: namely, that you can only gain that referendum by voting Conservative (which is true).
The Prime Minister’s piece is a modest move towards fleshing out what this spring’s manifesto will say. But there is a problem at its heart which explains his caution. There is a gap – perhaps a gulf – between the summary of the present position which he sets out this morning and what many members of the Parliamentary Party want. There are almost as many views on which powers should be repatriated as there are Tory MPs, but many want key areas of public policy to be free of the powers exercised by the European institutions, including the court: in short, they want protection, as they see it, from present EU powers, not just future ones.
This is presumably why Number 10 is by-passing the elaborate policy process which it has set up for the 2015 manifesto when it comes to the 2014 manifesto – that’s to say, the one for the Euro-elections that comes so soon. The tension and distrust which this side-step suggests highlights a problem far bigger than the current palaver about George Osborne, Boris Johnson, and Michael Gove – namely, that the differences on EU policy that have plagued the Conservatives for 25 years still remain. Since Cameron’s approach is more minimalist than most of his Party’s, the best solution is for him to set it out more fully, for those who both agree and disagree with it to be free to do – and for all to concentrate their energies on gaining that elusive referendum.