In June 2019, three years after the UK voted to leave the European Union, Conservative Party members in Bracknell passed a motion of no confidence in their MP, Philip Lee. Lee had backed calls for a second Brexit referendum, and had previously resigned his ministerial post because he was unhappy with how the government was handling talks with the EU. Interviewed on BBC radio, he was challenged by the interviewer, Nick Robinson: ‘you said one thing before the election and you did something different after the election, aren’t they entitled to get rid of you?’ Lee responded that, when he had stood as the Conservative Party candidate in 2017, ‘everybody in Bracknell knew what my position had been in the preceding referendum and I was selected as a candidate before the manifesto was published.’ Asked by Robinson if he therefore did not consider himself bound by the manifesto, Lee argued that ‘the Brexit that people are going to get is not the Brexit [that] was promised in the Vote Leave campaign in 2016.’ Feeling that his position was no longer tenable, Lee dramatically crossed the floor of the House of Commons in September 2019 during a speech by the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson, removing the government’s majority in the process.
The conflict between the Tory activists and Lee was representative of two different schools of thought. The position of the first of these is straightforward: that the results of referenda should be implemented and that MPs are bound to support the party manifesto upon which they are elected. The other school advances a more complicated view. First, if the promises of the winning side in an advisory referendum are not borne out, the voters’ decision should not be implemented come what may. Second, MPs have a broader representative role. This means that they are bound to act in the interests of their constituents and of the nation as a whole, and therefore should not implement manifestos or referendum results willy-nilly. Third, an MP’s personal beliefs, as long as they known to voters, can override any obligation to abide by their party’s manifesto. After all, most MPs have no hand in drawing manifestos up.
The two differing positions are rarely, if ever, worked out or articulated in full, but they nonetheless form a fault-line that runs through contemporary politics. Nobody doubts that politicians ought to fulfil their promises. What people cannot agree about is what this means in practice. Although there have been many continuities in the culture of electoral promise-making over the last 120 years, the changes have been at least as significant.
At the dawn of the Edwardian period, the British model of politics was, broadly speaking, based on the articulation of principles which, it was expected, might well be adapted in the face of contingency once the party or politician that promoted them took office. Individual candidates and MPs had considerable leeway to exercise independence from the central party machines.
However, by 1914, there were signs that a more programmatic politics was emerging, partly in response to the threat posed by Labour to the established Conservative and Liberal parties. From then on, and especially after 1945, manifestos became increasingly central to electoral politics and to the practice of governing. Parties were expected not merely to outline in detail what they would do in office but to explain how the policies would be paid for.
Manifestos have been central to notions of the governing party’s mandate, especially since the birth of the so-called Salisbury-Addison convention in the late 1940s. This was an agreement negotiated between the leaders of the Conservative and Labour Parties in the House of Lords during the period of the Attlee government. It meant that the Lords would not attempt to block or wreck measures that the governing party had put forward in its election manifesto. Over time, practice evolved so that the Lords would usually not stop government bills, irrespective of whether or not they were the result of manifesto commitments.
However, the convention does not have the force of law and there are a number of ambiguities. For example, what if the government does not have a Commons majority? Moreover, the repeated use of UK-wide referenda since 1975 have created another source of popular authority. After the Brexit referendum, multiple actors made conflicting claims about obligation, or otherwise, of Parliament to act upon the outcome. The Leave and Remain campaigns produced no detailed manifestos and the former offered multiple, sometimes conflicting, notions of what a post-Brexit Britain would look like.
The results of the 2017 general election did little to clear up the confusion. Indeed, it resulted in some politicians and commentators advocating a new theory, which gave moral force even to the manifesto of the losing party. Given that both Labour and Conservatives had pledged to leave the EU, it could be argued: ‘With more than 85 percent of the vote on a clear Brexit platform, promising to respect the Brexit referendum result, the new government and the entire new Parliament have a clear Brexit mandate.’
In theory, the 2019 election provides an opportunity for the next government to claim it has a clear mandate for Brexit, whether this is for Johnson’s deal or for Corbyn to negotiate a new deal and put it to a referendum. However, it may well be that the election results in another coalition government (with the administration having to reconcile competing manifesto promises on Brexit).
In any case, the next government is very unlikely to achieve a majority of the popular vote. It is quite possible, then, that a government will be elected with an apparent mandate that clashes with the 17.4 million votes cast in favour of leaving the EU in 2016. It may not be a very practical idea, but today’s politicians might in their heart of hearts prefer to take the approach used by the conservative MP R.A. Butler at the election of 1935: ‘I always have and always will refuse to make promises.’
Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in Twentieth Century British History.
David Thackeray is Professor at the University of Exeter.
Richard Toye is Professor and Head of the History Department at the University of Exeter.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).