The promise-keepers


Liam Fox, the British international trade secretary, best known for confounding the Brexit critics with his stunning success in concluding trade continuity agreement with Andorra and the Faroe Islands, has stated in a radio interview that the government may just ignore the “indicative votes” that Parliament is expected to carry out, to express the will of Parliament on the way forward in Brexit. This is hardly surprising. The government, and Theresa May in particular, have been clear and consistent in their belief that a democratic government ought not to assign much weight, or allow themselves to be too much influenced by, votes that are formally non-binding. But I was struck by something else in Fox’s statement:

I was elected, as 80% of members were, to respect the referendum and leave the European Union. I was also elected on a manifesto that specifically said no single market and no customs union. That, for Conservative MPs who are honouring the manifesto, limits their room for manoeuvre.

This sounds pretty persuasive. We want politicians to honour their promises, particularly those that have been formally laid out in a party election manifesto. But it occurred to me — and I may be unusual in this — I never actually read the 2017 Conservative election manifesto. It’s available here, so I had a look.

The first thing I notice is that the single market and the customs union are each mentioned only once, and not exactly in the form of a resounding promise, but in a kind of passive construction:

As we leave the European Union, we will no longer be members of the single market or customs union but we will seek a deep and special partnership including a comprehensive free trade and customs agreement.

Is this a promise or a (mistaken) suggestion of inevitability? Why is it formulated in this weird continuing tense “as we leave the European Union” rather than “after we leave”? Why is that comma in such a weird, ungrammatical place?

On the other hand, the first thing the manifesto has to say about Brexit does sound like a promise:

We need to deliver a smooth and orderly departure from the European Union and forge a deep and special partnership with our friends and allies across Europe.

And then there is this:

We will restore the contract between the generations, providing older people with security against ill health while ensuring we maintain the promise of opportunity and prosperity for younger generations. That contract includes our National Health Service, which is founded on the principle that those who have should help those who do not.

And this:

Under the strong and stable leadership of Theresa May, there will be no ideological crusades. The government’s agenda will not be allowed to drift to the right. Our starting point is that we should take decisions on the basis of what works.

Many promises, and they can’t all be fulfilled. So the decision about which ones to abandon — no smooth and orderly departure or saving the NHS or ideological moderation, yes leaving the single market and customs union — is a free political choice. The government could say, well, whatever we think of the single market, we did promise a smooth and orderly departure from the EU, and the only way we can obtain that is to negotiate on the basis of staying in the single market. The deference to “promises”, the assertion of “limited room for manoeuvre” is a way of pressuring other politicians, and indeed the electorate. They don’t want a second referendum because they suspect that their policies don’t command majority support. So they refer to a promise made to a previous electorate.

The argument against a second EU referendum would apply equally as an argument against holding parliamentary elections in 2022. “We made a promise…”

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