‘What would a Conservative manifesto say on Brexit?’ Many Tories consider this question a slam-dunk argument against an early election. But the party’s predicament is actually much worse. It is easier to work out what their manifesto would say on Brexit than on a whole host of other issues.
The Tories are relatively united on Brexit, for the moment. Only eight of the party’s MPs voted against Sir Graham Brady’s amendment last month which authorised Theresa May to seek ‘alternatives’ to the backstop. So this would be the Tory position in a pre-Brexit election. In an immediate post-Brexit contest May would presumably seek a vague mandate to negotiate the best possible future relationship, leaving open what precisely that is.
But what about everything else? Here it is much harder to see what the Tories would say. Their 2017 manifesto marked a bold (and, as it turned out, calamitous) attempt to redefine the party. It was meant to drag the Tories to the left, making them far more of a Christian Democrat party. There was an attack on what it called ‘untrammelled free markets’, and it declared that ‘our responsibility to one another is greater than the rights we hold as individuals’.
It is hard to copy Labour language and policy while simultaneously discouraging people from voting Labour. Which is what voters did in 2017, in numbers large enough to strip the Tories of their majority. The manifesto — and particularly its rushed-through policy on social care — took most of the blame for this. Policies it proposed, such as lifting the ban on new grammar schools, are now all tainted by association.
But if the next manifesto were to start from scratch, it is hard to see what it would say. May set out to bury Cameronism without thinking about what would replace it. Decent ministers, such as Jeremy Hunt and Matt Hancock at health and Michael Gove at environment, have given the Tories more substantive policies than they did two years ago. But in too many other areas, their position is unclear. What do Tories think about education? What’s the Conservative position on the economy?
‘There are so many areas where we don’t have anything to say,’ admits one government aide. ‘It is embarrassing.’ The lack of clarity isn’t going to be settled this side of Brexit. I am told that the pace of other business in government has slowed to something close to a standstill as the machine concentrates on getting ready for exit day.
Even if May wins her Brexit vote, we won’t suddenly see a thousand new policies bloom. She remains committed to her ‘burning injustices’ agenda. But as her time in office has shown, she is clearer about the problems she wants to solve than how to solve them. She has failed to find active policies to match her rhetoric. And probably never will.
In all likelihood, the question of the next Tory manifesto will be settled by May’s successor. No. 10 is adamant that it doesn’t want a snap election, but her cabinet is even more so. If May tried to call one, they would let down the tyres on the Prime Ministerial car before she could even head to the Palace.
The next leadership contest will be a defining one for the party. Not only will the new leader determine what kind of relationship with the EU the UK is aiming for, but they will also have an almost blank canvas to draw on when it comes to domestic policy.
It would be a good idea to have an economic policy, for example. Some MPs think it’s time to the accentuate the differences with Jeremy Corbyn, with the Tories standing for lower taxes and less regulation. Others prefer an agenda of national renewal, a big emphasis on new physical and digital infrastructure to try and improve productivity and wages. Advocates of this approach say the Tories need a post-austerity message; that the public want the government to spend more, but trust the Tories to do so more wisely than Corbyn’s Labour party. A third faction believe it’s best to shift leftwards, arguing that the recent NHS spending splurge should be followed by an education splurge. This, they claim, would bring in more votes than tax cuts.
The next leadership contest will have candidates advocating all of these positions—or some combination of them. The winner will have considerable freedom in terms of the party’s direction. But the problem will be when it comes to implementing any of it without a majority; which is why an election this year remains a distinct possibility.
It’s quite feasible that May will only win her Brexit vote by promising to step down soon afterwards. A few MPs are saying they’ll demand a departure date from her before they’ll vote for her withdrawal agreement: one leading Eurosceptic has told colleagues that this will be the price of his support for any revised deal. (It should be noted, though, that May will be extremely resistant to this idea. Loyalist ministers say she’d prefer to stay for at least two more years and see through the next round of Brexit talks.)
If she goes soon after a deal is done, her successor may find a fair economic wind blowing — with business investment picking up as Brexit uncertainty eases. At the same time, Labour might split. Labour MPs who had stayed on in the hope of using the party to thwart Brexit would have to accept that this strategy has failed. Some might set up their own party, which could be the perfect time for a new Tory leader to call an election — and break free of the constraints of a hung parliament. Certainly, negotiating with the EU would be easier with a significant parliamentary majority. That was, after all, the rationale for May going back on her word and calling an election in 2017.
In Tory circles, there’s a sense that May’s great mistake in 2017 was to fall between two stools. She should have either gone to the country straight after becoming Prime Minister, seeking her own mandate, or have served until the end of the parliamentary term. Her successor will not want to repeat this mistake — and will either hunker down until May 2022 or go to the country immediately. They will, as in so many other issues, define themselves against her.