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Even in a pandemic, delivering manifestos still matters

Despite the pandemic, the government has made decent inroads on its ‘contract with the electorate’

Despite the pandemic, the government has made decent inroads on its ‘contract with the electorate’. But after a series of easy wins, Sarah Nickson says difficult choices lie ahead

Before the last election, the IfG asked whether manifestos still matter. Given the pandemic, and its demands on ministers’ attention and the public finances, there would be good reason to assume the most recent manifesto might have fallen by the wayside. After all, history shows the winning party’s plans often fall victim to circumstances that were not foreseen during the election campaign: thin majorities, crises and lost referendums.

One year on from the 2019 election, however, the pandemic does not seem to have had the same effect on the Conservative manifesto: of the approximately 100 commitments that the Institute for Government is tracking, around two thirds have been completed or are well underway. This includes some of the highest profile commitments, like passing the EU withdrawal agreement legislation. This progress should be welcomed, but it reflects the fact that many could be delivered at the stroke of a pen, like promises of more funding, or the release of strategy papers (without any accompanying promise of acting on them).

Further progress might be harder, with few inroads made on some of the most difficult pledges, like social care. The government will face tough decisions on whether it should abandon others.

The government has doubled down on spending

Many of the government’s most expensive commitments – including more than £100 billion for infrastructure, £4 billion for schools and a 3% increase in funding for the NHS – were confirmed in the March budget, before the UK felt the full force of coronavirus. Despite the pandemic’s squeeze on the government’s finances, it is sticking to nearly all of its spending promises – with foreign aid being a notable exception.

It may need to go further on key public services too. Even before the pandemic, the extra funding for the NHS would only have been enough to maintain standards; with a backlog of patients waiting for non-coronavirus treatment it may no longer be enough to do even that. On the other hand, pledges on investment spending might prove harder to deliver on time: governments of both stripes have a long history of spending less than planned on capital projects.

Some commitments could be set for the chopping block

Given the scale of spending needed to support the economy, chancellor Rishi Sunak has said he will set out new fiscal rules to replace those from the 2019 manifesto. The existing rules belong to a pre-pandemic era and the government is unlikely to be criticised for ditching them. But the economic fallout from the pandemic will lead to harder choices elsewhere, particularly on tax and the pensions triple lock. Abandoning these commitments will be more difficult than cutting foreign aid, a move which is popular with the public. [1]

Eventually, the government will need to put public finances on a more sustainable footing. If spending cuts are off the table, that means raising more revenue. The manifesto last year promised no increase to rates of income tax, national insurance or VAT. Unless the government is prepared to break that commitment, its options on the revenue side will be limited: these three taxes account for two-thirds of all tax revenues, and relatively small increases in rates could raise large sums without a big impact on the economy. The chancellor has already said the self-employed might have to start making higher national insurance contributions as ‘quid pro quo’ for their income support scheme. The same change eluded former chancellor Philip Hammond, who was stymied by Conservative Party colleagues who thought it violated the 2015 manifesto. In this case, the pandemic might change what is politically possible. But it will take more than this to breach the forecast gap between revenue and spending.

The government also faces difficult choices on the pensions triple lock, which guarantees an increase by the highest of inflation, average wage rises or 2.5%. When workers eventually move off the furlough scheme and back to their regular salaries – or unemployment – average pay will rise significantly. This could deliver a windfall to pensioners but a hit to government finances, at the same time as many working age people have lost their jobs and businesses. A fudge could be found, like suspending (rather than scrapping) the triple lock. But the government would need to persuade voters that unforeseen circumstances should let it off the hook.

Other manifesto commitments might be crowded out

Other commitments are at risk, not because they no longer suit the times, but because the attention and energy needed to deliver them are already stretched between the pandemic and Brexit. While the government has not walked away from its commitment to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050,  political leadership from the prime minister is needed to make progress. Meanwhile, any ‘solution’ to social care funding remains elusive. The pandemic has reinforced the need for a sustainable settlement but has done nothing to answer the thorny question of who should pay for it.

Both demand difficult conversations now in return for later rewards (which will be enjoyed by a future government). Even at the best of times, governments struggle with long-term policy making, and it is hardly surprising that ministers have their eye on today’s problems.

Manifestos still matter

The number of commitments the government does or doesn’t meet will not be the only standard by which the voters judge it at the next election. The handling of the pandemic and the end of the Brexit transition period are others. In any case, the government’s willingness to walk away from its foreign aid pledge shows that not all manifesto commitments are equal in the public’s view.

Even so, the manifesto has given the government a roadmap to follow – and for the electorate to judge it against. The government has already ticked off many of the promises it made last year. But having achieved the easy wins, there is no escaping the difficult choices that will need to be made – or that much of government’s bandwidth will continue to be occupied by the pandemic and the end of the Brexit transition period.


Johnson government
Institute for Government

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