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General Election 2017 - the parties set out their Brexit roadmap

Posted: 22/05/2017

A mere two years after David Cameron walked back into 10 Downing Street and less than twelve months after the EU referendum, the UK is facing yet another election as Theresa May seeks a mandate for negotiating Brexit.

All three main parties have now released their manifestos which include strategies for leaving the EU and their positions and aims for the Article 50 negotiations.

The Conservative Party

While it is clear that the most pressing matter facing the United Kingdom both now and for the next few years will be Brexit, the Conservative manifesto leaves it to page 35 before focusing on “Leaving the European Union”.

The manifesto is very brief although it refers to Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech and the White Paper so that is not entirely surprising.  The Government’s (and therefore the Conservative) position has been spelled out before.

The manifesto helpfully reminds us that only the Conservative Party under the “strong and stable leadership” of Theresa May can negotiate the best deal with the EU. It repeats the aim for a “deep and special partnership” with the EU and also restates that “no deal is better than a bad deal for the UK”.

The main points from the White Paper and Lancaster House speech are rushed through again in the space of one paragraph (to recap – we would control our own laws, control immigration with targets on net immigration, secure reciprocal entitlements of EU nationals and UK nationals, retain the Common Travel Area and a frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, uphold workers’ rights currently under EU law, leave the single market but preserve free trade, work together to fight crime and terrorism and collaborate in science and research).

Parliament will get a vote on the final deal.

The manifesto repeats the aims of the Great Repeal Bill and states that the Conservative Party will bring forward a number of additional bills to ensure that there is a statutory basis for UK authorities to exercise powers currently exercised through EU law and institutions.

There is an interesting statement 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 course, the EU has not accepted this approach (yet?) and the two years will have reduced to just under 22 months by the date of the election on 8 June. 

One other line, hidden away in the text, states that “we will determine a fair settlement of the UK’s rights and obligations as a departing state…” – political space to deal with the likely financial demand from the EU perhaps.

The Labour Party

In the Labour manifesto Brexit comes at chapter 2 – “Negotiating Brexit” and is mixed with sections on immigration and international trade.

Labour’s positioning is clear in some respects but rather vague in others.  A central point is an implied rejection of continuing single market and customs union membership.  Instead Labour plans to “build a close new relationship with the EU” with “…fresh negotiating priorities that have a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and customs union”.  This seems eerily similar to the Conservative deep and special partnership.  However, Labour “will reject ‘no deal’ as a viable option and if needs be negotiate transitional arrangements to avoid a cliff-edge….”. 

Other than the explicit rejection of the “no deal” option, the main difference seems to be one of tone.  The manifesto declares that a Conservative Brexit, will “weaken workers’ rights, deregulate the economy, slash corporate taxes, sideline Parliament and democratic accountability…” whereas a Labour Brexit will “…[never] accept the weakening of workers’ rights, consumer rights or environmental protections” and it will “work with Parliament, not against it”.  The manifesto presents itself in this respect as a choice between an evil Tory bespoke Brexit versus a cuddly Labour bespoke Brexit.

On more specific points, Labour states that it will unilaterally guarantee existing rights for all EU nationals living in Britain and also will “secure reciprocal rights for UK citizens who have chosen to make their lives in EU countries”.  The latter statement is rather ambitious given that reciprocal rights are not any UK Government’s gift to give. 

Additionally it wants to remain in Erasmus, Horizon 2020, Eurojust, Europol and, interestingly, Euratom (which the Government’s White Paper has explicitly stated the UK will leave). 

On a sectoral basis, farming is particularly mentioned, with continued EU market access for agricultural produce to be secured.  Again this is interesting as securing access is another item that is not within the UK Government’s sole gift.

As has been publicised widely, Labour will end freedom of movement and will “develop and implement fair immigration rules”.  It would reinstate the Migrant Impact Fund and bolster it with funds from the investments required for high net worth individual visas.  It’s not clear whether this would be some form of additional levy.  The party would also exclude international students from immigration numbers (a deft trick that – it’s surprising Theresa May didn’t think of it).

Finally there is, of course, the reassurance that there will be “no return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland”.

The Liberal Democrats

The Lib Dems’ Brexit position is front and centre of their manifesto – chapter 1 “Protect Britain’s place in Europe”. 

Having always been the most EU-phile of the three main parties, it was always going to be interesting to see what they would do next following the leave vote – go with the result or set their face against it.

The manifesto answers this question. The Lib Dems will go with it.  Sort of. 

The party wants to “press for keeping Britain as close as possible to Europe” (presumably politically rather than geographically) and lists its aims for the negotiation and settlement.

These aims (helpfully itemised in the manifesto and therefore ideal for replication) are:

  • a unilateral guarantee of the rights of EU nationals in the UK (and, as an interesting spin, the Lib Dems will “use our influence with Liberal leaders in European countries to secure the same rights for UK citizens living in European Union countries” – according to an interview with the Evening Standard some weeks ago Tim Farron has Guy Verhofstadt’s mobile number so maybe that is what he has in mind);
  • retain membership of the single market and customs union – a clear break with the approach of the other two parties;
  • support for freedom of movement;
  • protect Erasmus+ membership;
  • ensure maintenance of worker protections as currently guaranteed under EU law;
  • maintenance of all EU environmental standards;
  • preserve maximum access to Europol and other police databases as well as, it would seem, use of the European Arrest Warrant;
  • rather nebulously protect British business and jobs;
  • fight for the right to apply for EU funding for science and research;
  • strive to retain traveller and tourist benefits such as the EHIC card and pet passports;
  • respect for the interests of the nations of the UK – which is basically the standard nod towards Gibraltar and the problems with the Northern Ireland/Irish border.

The key element in the Lib Dem manifesto is that the party wants the final deal to be put to a popular vote – the options being take the deal or stay in the EU.  Given that one of the first comments in their manifesto is that “Britain is better off in the EU”, this presents the curious prospect of the Lib Dems in government spending two years negotiating a deal that they then oppose in a referendum.  Politicians certainly need to be flexible.

The difficulty with having another referendum on the matter is that it is still unclear whether Article 50 can be unilaterally revoked by the UK now that it has been served.  This is an important question that needs to be answered.


It is, of course, impossible to tell how negotiations will go and what the outcome will be.  This is the choice presented on the issue and it is up to the electorate to decide who they want to be batting for the UK for the next two years (or should that be 22 months).

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