Post-Covid, the Tories’ 2019 manifesto still matters. Will their broken promises come back to haunt them?

Election manifestos are like the small print on the guarantees that come with television sets, toasters and other such purchases. Much time and effort is spent getting right the words that hardly any of us ever read.

Still, most of us know that the small print in a purchase matters. It establishes the contractual relationship between the buyer and the manufacturer or retailer if things go wrong. Without it, we would be thrashing around in a legal fog.

But good luck trying to sue a political party for breaking its manifesto commitments. They have no legal standing. And now, Covid’s huge impact on our national life provides a perfect alibi for any minister accused of a breach of promise (or, for that matter, ex-minister, now Matt Hancock has resigned in order to spend less time with his family). In the light of all that, does the 2019 Conservative manifesto have any relevance at all today?

In fact, it does. Nineteen months after it first appeared, it still tells us how Boris Johnson thinks. In particular, it reveals a leader who cares more about the impression he gives today than the effect of what he does tomorrow. Even more than most manifestos, it contains Cheshire cat promises—like the fabled Wonderland creature seen by Alice. The longer you look at them, the more they fade, until all that’s left is the grin on the prime minister’s face.

Such promises are not new. All parties make them. But Johnson is a talented wordsmith—and on this occasion, that is not meant as a compliment. Here are examples of the three main types of Cheshire cat commitment in the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto:

  • Commitments that defy measurement. The Tories promised to “create more great schools,” “run an ever stronger and more dynamic economy” and “champion freedom of expression and tolerance, both in the UK and overseas.” Who could object to any of these? However, without a precise way of measuring performance agreed in advance, we lack the means to reach a clear, objective and universally accepted verdict.
  • Commitments that may or may not improve our lives. Thus: “Between 2018 and 2023, we will have raised funding for the NHS by 29 per cent,” “We will add 10,000 more prison places” and “We will make a £28.8 billion investment in strategic and local roads.” In economists’ jargon, these are about inputs, not impact. They tell us what the government will do, but do not guarantee to make our lives better. The government is NOT promising to reduce ill-health, cut the crime rate or eliminate traffic jams.
  • Long-term commitments that will take decades to judge. The most prominent of these is: “We will lead the global fight against climate change by delivering on our world-leading target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.” In the past few days, the advisory Climate Change Committee has said Johnson is failing to follow through with actions that will achieve that goal. The prime minister will doubtless dispute that. We may not know for sure who is right for another 29 years.

That leaves the real, testable and relevant promises. Technically they are usually input pledges, but most have fairly clear implications for the impact they will have. For example:

  • “We will not borrow to fund day-to-day spending…. debt will be lower at the end of the parliament…”

Of course that won’t happen. But, whatever other mistakes the government has made over the pandemic, nobody should fault it for borrowing massively to keep the economy afloat.

  • (On social care) “We will build a cross-party consensus to bring forward an answer that solves the problem. One condition we do make is that nobody needing care should be forced to sell their home to pay for it.”

Johnson is plainly trying to keep that promise; but he keeps postponing publication of the plans, not least because Rishi Sunak wants to raise the money from somewhere. His problem is that the manifesto also claimed:

  • “We promise not to raise the rates of income tax, National Insurance or VAT.”
  • “We will keep the triple lock [on state pensions], the winter fuel payment, the older person’s bus pass and other pensioner benefits…”

So far, these two promises have been kept. But the cost of solving the social care crisis may require rises in tax or national insurance. And keeping the “triple lock” commitment on pensions will be expensive. Because of the pandemic and its effect on wages, partly because of the furlough system, the state pension could rise next April by 6-8 per cent under the current formula. There is a perfectly sensible case for suspending the triple lock for one year. But this would be a clear breach of the manifesto. It wouldn’t be the first:

  • “We will proudly maintain our commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI [Gross National Income] on development.”

We all know that the development budget is being cut to 0.5 per cent. The government says the Act committing the UK to the 0.7 per cent target allows it to be suspended in exceptional circumstances. However, the manifesto contains no such qualification. The reduction may be justified, but it is an undeniable breach of an election commitment.

  • “We will publish a National Strategy for Disabled People before the end of 2020.”

They didn’t. After a series of delays, the government said in January: “The Strategy is due to be published in Spring 2021.” Spring has come and gone; so has the Queen’s Speech, which would have mentioned it if the government were sticking to its new timetable. We are still waiting.

And so on. Have the Tories suffered? Not according to the polls. With the Conservative Party entering the mid-term of this parliament holding a double-digit lead over Labour, it’s tempting to conclude that governments can ignore manifesto commitments with impunity, especially when something as big as the pandemic throws out all their forecasts for tax and spending.

The truth is subtler. Each election gives voters a chance to deliver their verdict on the government. That verdict will contain a number of components, and these will vary from voter to voter. How many will go through the previous election’s manifesto and draw up a checklist of promises made before deciding which party to support? I’m not aware of any research on this, but I expect we can agree that the number will be roughly zero.

However, if the broken promises pile up, and especially if enough voters think the government has failed to meet some of its broader objectives, such as “unleashing the potential” of our country post-Brexit (another Cheshire cat pledge), then all this could come together in a character judgment that ejects Johnson from office.

Manifestos, then, are neither irrelevant nor all-important. They matter—up to a point. Should they matter more? Perhaps. But this would need a culture of political and public debate that valued rigour and objectivity more than ours does, ever did or likely ever will.