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09 December 2019

The two main parties play it safe with minimal detail on Brexit

Jill Rutter

JILL RUTTER: The Conservatives are vague, while Labour relegates Brexit to the back of their manifesto


The Policy Institute is producing a series of comment pieces analysing election manifesto pledges from the different parties across a range of policy areas. Read the full series here

In 2017 Theresa May went to the country seeking a mandate to get Brexit done her way. The country denied her her wish.

Two and a half years later, her successor as Conservative Prime Minister has engineered an election to enable him to get Brexit done his way. On 13 December we will find out whether the nation’s preferences, refracted through the vagaries of our electoral system, will give him the “working majority” he craves.

In 2017 both major parties were committed to “respecting” the result of the referendum – and the possibility of asking people to vote again was just a gleam in the Liberal Democrats’ eye. There were Brexit choices on offer – but they were much more muted and the national conversation on the respective merits of being inside or outside a customs union, how a hard border in the island of Ireland could really work after Brexit and the full implications of being outside the Single Market had barely got going. Then the election was called in the wake of Parliament voting with a very substantial majority to trigger Article 50.

This time round the prime minister’s election comes after Parliament voted by a relatively healthy majority of 30 for his “deal” with the EU – but denied him the rushed timetable he sought to enable the UK to leave on 31 October. This has provided the pretext for the argument that he needs a majority to get his deal through.

So the brief one page on Brexit in the Conservative manifesto is a commitment to “get Brexit done” – more accurately to pass this Withdrawal Agreement. The UK will then formally and finally leave the European Union on 31 January.

But the manifesto is much less clear on what comes next. It tells us what the UK will not be – not in the single market, any sort of customs union and not under the European Court of Justice – though actually those commitments are only valid for Great Britain. It tells us that the UK will not agree to an extension, and with a majority the Conservatives could avoid being subjected to more parliamentary manoeuvres to impose one.

This all suggests a low level of ambition for a future deal – one that our modelling suggests would result in quite a severe economic hit. Control of our own fishing waters, an ability to reshape the way we support farmers and the ability to conclude trade deals with third countries – some of the benefits from Brexit will in no way compensate for that loss. On the way in which the UK might use its other flexibilities – beyond “buying British” and a more expansive state aid regime – the manifesto is silent. Indeed, it suggests that we will use our regulatory freedom to diverge upwards – something that we could have already done in most areas where the EU sets minimum standards. And pinning its colours so firmly to no extension means that it is keeping a no deal Brexit for GB on the table for 2021.

For Labour Brexit appears to be more of an annoyance that needs to be dealt with so that it can get on with the serious business of its manifesto – the most radical transformation of the scale and reach of the state since Thatcher or Attlee.

Jill Rutter

For Labour Brexit appears to be more of an annoyance that needs to be dealt with so that it can get on with the serious business of its manifesto – the most radical transformation of the scale and reach of the state since Thatcher or Attlee. It is relegated to the back of the manifesto – and again the commitment is to put Brexit behind us within six months after a referendum on remaining or a much, much softer Brexit involving a permanent customs union and “close alignment” with the single market. The problem with Labour’s choice is that many Brexit supporters would see it as no choice at all. The Constitution Unit have suggested the only way of meeting their timetable is to put Johnson’s deal up against Remain. But the problem there is that, if Leave won, someone in government would have to fill in the blanks it leaves. It is hard to see how that could be a Corbyn coalition.

When the election result is in, there will be a lot of analysis of whether the Liberal Democrats made a historic tactical mistake by suggesting a majority Liberal Democrat government would revoke article 50 straightaway with no reference back to voters. The desire to “out-remain” all the other parties has opened them up to the twin charges of hubris over the idea they could win a majority and being anti-democratic – charges they have found it hard to recover from, even as they back-pedalled in the second half of the campaign.

The success – or not – of the Remain alliance, the 60 seats in which the Liberal Democrats, Green party and Plaid have agreed to stand down will also potentially highlight the problem of no deal with Labour. Tactical withdrawals between the Liberal Democrats and Labour could have opened the way to a more unified Remain vote. But it could also have alienated a lot of potential Lib Dem voters in the South East whose support for Remain is trumped by their concern about a Labour government.

And that, in a nutshell, encapsulates the problem of using an election to give a clear direction on Brexit. In 2017 we were supposed to be voting on Brexit – but ended up voting on a dementia tax and Theresa May’s leaden performance as well. In 2019, voters have a big choice on Brexit combined with a big choice on the size and nature of the state, complicated by approaching 100 seats where tactical voting could make a difference.

Jill Rutter is a Senior Research Fellow at the UK in a Changing Europe.

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