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18 January 2019

We’re facing a Brexit election in which both parties will be desperate to talk about anything else

This article was first published on HuffPost.

Whilst Labour may be pushing hard for a snap General Election to help resolve the Brexit crisis, no-one really knows what the parties will be offering the electorate.

One of the real consequences of the 2017 General Election was ultimately to undermine the value of manifestos but it didn’t seem like that at the time. Under normal circumstances, few people read manifestos but 2017 was different. The Conservative Party may have ‘won’ the election but it did so in spite of its manifesto not because of it. Its plans for social care were so unpopular that they became a ‘door-step’ issue. Normally true blue Conservative voters were so disgusted with the plans that they turned against the party.

There are several competing versions of how Labour’s manifesto worked for the party in 2017. It was leaked a week before it was ready for its official launch. One explanation has this as a tactical masterstroke, grabbing the initiative from the Conservatives and dominating the headlines for a week in advance of the official launch which then gathered even more coverage. The other explanation is that opponents of Corbyn leaked the document to show how poor it was. It actually worked in Corbyn’s favour.

The 2017 result meant that, in effect, the Conservative Party immediately shredded its manifesto and most of the policies it contained. Labour meanwhile have chosen to spend the intervening period further developing its ideas and working up draft legislation so they are ready to move quickly on entering government.

As Labour are the ones pushing for an early election, the questions about manifesto contents are being aimed at them. But the Conservatives are in just as much trouble.

Conservative Party manifestos are traditionally written by a small group of people close to the party leader / prime minister. Views may be taken from a wider group but control is tight. If the Conservative Party is fight an election any time soon then it faces a number of dilemmas.

The first is that this Prime Minister has said that she will not fight the next election. However, if that were to take place in a matter of weeks then it is likely that Mrs May will still be in change.

What does this mean for the manifesto? Those writing the policies usually have the trust and faith of the wider party because the leader has the trust and faith of the wider party. Mrs May does not enjoy that support. So who will pull together the contents of the manifesto? A Policy Commission, complete with task forces, has been hard at work but any recommendations it comes up with may be too closely associated with the current PM to gain any traction.

Add to this the inability of the party to agree on what to do about Brexit. A line which states ‘we will deliver on the result of the referendum’ simply won’t stand up to scrutiny.

The position for Labour is a little better as it can at least do a ‘cut and paste’ from the 2017 manifesto as its basis. Questions have already been asked about what the manifesto would say about Brexit. Corbyn and others simply refer to democracy within the party and how the members will decide. But in the event of a snap election how does the party realistically gather the views of members and come behind a policy? The timing simply doesn’t work for them. If Corbyn tries to steamroller a position through then he risks a very public backlash from members who, let’s not forget, want a second referendum. A special conference may be an option but everyone needs to consider what role the trade unions may have under these circumstances.

Whilst many do not want a second referendum, others are content to have a second Brexit election. Announcing her intention to call an election in 2017, Mrs May said:

‘Let everybody put forward their proposals for Brexit and their programmes for government, and let us remove the risk of uncertainty and instability and continue to give the country the strong and stable leadership it demands.’

So we face the prospect of a Brexit election in which both main parties will be desperate to talk about anything else other than Brexit. That happened in 2017 and the same would be true in 2019. That is one thing the Conservatives and Labour can agree on.

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