Mandates are a crucial part of discourse in the current UK political environment. The referendum of 23 June 2016, some hold, produced a mandate so powerful it amounts to an irresistible, irreversible obligation to leave the EU. Now, Theresa May hopes, the General Election will establish a mandate for her to execute that decision.
A leaflet posted through my door today, in the name of the Prime Minister, asked the electors of Ealing Central and Acton to ‘vote to back me and strengthen my hand’ in the coming negotiations. If we assume, for argument’s sake, that the Conservative Party secures a Commons majority on Thursday, May will claim an endorsement from the voters enabling her to act on behalf of the UK.
But beyond personal authority, what is the substantive content of the Brexit programme for which she is seeking approval? The leaflet offers few clues. The clearest statement is that she will ‘ensure we control and reduce immigration when we leave the EU’. This proposal is far from precise. Others, such as the pledge to ‘stand up for Britain and fight to get the best deal’ are virtually meaningless.
So what are we being asked to vote for? More information is on offer in the Conservative manifesto. Admittedly, in viewing it as a basis for some form of expression of popular will, we need to put to one side that most Conservative voters will not have read this document, that even if they have it does not mean they agree with every part of it, and that it is possible to win a House of Commons majority without winning over half of votes cast (indeed, no party has achieved above 50 per cent since the Conservatives in 1955).
Nonetheless, the manifesto makes the clear statement of intention that the UK will ‘no longer be members of the single market or customs union’. May can certainly claim that she has a genuine mandate for this course of action, if her party wins.
But other parts of the text lack this clarity, and undermine the credibility of the document as a whole. It refers to the plan to secure for the UK a ‘deep and special partnership with the European Union’; though not explaining what ‘deep and special’ mean. It then goes on to iterate that ‘negotiations will undoubtedly be tough, and there will be give and take on both sides’. This statement creates the impression that concessions might be needed.
But it does not provide an account of what it is that the UK could ‘give’. Crucially, the manifesto also asserts that: ‘we continue to believe that no deal is better than a bad deal for the UK.’ By no deal, it presumably means the ‘cliff edge’ or ‘hard Brexit’ scenario. Yet, despite the seriousness of this possible outcome, the document does not explain how a possible arrangement might be judged sufficiently ‘bad’ that ‘no deal’ at all would be a better option.
While determined to leave the single market and customs union (and if necessary reject what it sees as a ‘bad deal’), a Conservative government would seemingly also intend to achieve some maintenance of continuity upon exit. The manifesto states that the UK might want to take part in ‘specific European programmes’, for which it concedes payment will be necessary.
The text also acknowledges that there will need to be some kind of financial contribution from the UK as part of a mutually agreed exit package, insisting that ‘we will determine a fair settlement of the UK’s rights and obligations as a departing member state, in accordance with the law and in the spirit of the UK’s continuing partnership with the EU.’
The wording here continues the studied ambiguity found elsewhere in the manifesto. It does not define what is meant by ‘fair’. Another deliberately vague assertion comes with the statement that ‘the principle, however, is clear: the days of Britain making vast annual contributions to the European Union will end’.
As well as being imprecise, in other places the manifesto deals with outcomes that will not be within the sole control of the UK government. It states that ‘we believe it is necessary to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside our withdrawal, reaching agreement on both within the two years allowed by Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union.’
However, the EU appears already to have excluded the possibility of jointly negotiating exit and a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) from the outset, insisting that significant progress on the former must precede commencement of discussions of the latter. Moreover, the practical and political difficulties involved in fully agreeing an FTA in the initial two year time period allowed under Article 50 would seem to be immense.
If a May government is returned following the General Election, it might feel that the wording of this manifesto provides it with a combination of firmness and flexibility needed to deliver a Brexit that is both politically and practically viable. Ministers could regard themselves as having certain firm goals: control over inward migration, and departure from the Single Market and Customs Union. At the same time, they might take the view that, within this overall framework, they have much scope for discretion in seeking to avoid outcomes they deem undesirable.
For instance, they could take the view that they are able to agree a substantial severance payment and continue to participate in selected EU programmes, paying for the privilege of doing so and – in the areas involved – in practice continuing to adhere to European law, to ensure sufficient regulatory compliance. But will those who are more enthusiastic about a decisive departure from the EU, and who believe that the argument was settled in their favour on 23 June 2016, accept such subtleties?
Will a sophisticated mandate of the type May might assert command the necessary level of authority? Or will it begin to wear thin among those who feel that the small print is compromising the headline message? At this point pressure to take the ‘no deal’ might become difficult to resist. And those less supportive of the idea of leaving might also begin to question the extent of the democratic mandate on which the government claims to rest.