Whoever wins on 8 June will be able to claim some sort of personal mandate to represent the UK and deliver their type of Brexit. But the British public will not be hugely clearer on what exactly they are signing up for.
‘I’m Theresa, trust me’ vs having cake and eating it
The big theme of the Conservative Party manifesto is that only “the Conservative Party under Theresa May’s strong and stable leadership, [that] can negotiate the best possible deal for our country”.
But we don’t know any more on what that best possible deal looks like. The manifesto reiterates the highlights from the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech, the Brexit and Great Repeal Bill white papers, and the Article 50 letter to President of the European Council Donald Tusk. We get no more detail on: new customs arrangements, what the "implementation phase" might look like, what we might be prepared to pay to leave (the so-called "EU divorce bill") or where her bottom line lies.
Instead we are told again that "no deal is better than a bad deal". In her opening comments, the Prime Minister did seem to acknowledge that no deal on Brexit – or that famed bad deal – could have some very bad consequences.
In comparison, the Labour manifesto has far more specifics on its EU negotiating objectives. The party wants a more positive approach, based on cooperation. It wants to maintain a series of European collaborations. And it wants to maintain the benefits of the EU Single Market and Customs Union while respecting the referendum result, but noting that “freedom of movement will end”. How the party would persuade Europe to give us a deal that grants these benefits without the responsibilities gets no mention. It is on silent on any exit bill (whereas the Conservatives at least acknowledge we have obligations as a departing member state) – but it does make clear that no deal is worse than a bad deal.
Finally, both parties want to sort out the thorny issues of EU nationals and Ireland but neither have any specifics.
The Great Repeal Bill vs the EU Rights and Protections Bill
The Conservatives promise their Great Repeal Bill – and other legislation to take over powers currently exercise by the EU. That will guarantee exiting rights "are available" at the point at which we leave – and can be amended afterwards.
Meanwhile, Labour’s proposed replacement – the EU Rights and Protections Bill – emphasises ensuring that existing protections are not eroded, saying they will be "fully protected without qualifications, limitations or sunset clauses".
But the Conservatives’ section on better (usually less) regulation makes no mention at all of EU regulation.
Meaningful vote vs vote
Both Labour and the Conservatives promise a parliamentary vote on a Brexit deal – but Labour reiterates its line from Parliament on a "meaningful vote".
There is notably no Conservative offer of a vote on “no deal”.
Presumption of devolution vs possible new powers
Devolution looms as a potential flash point – at least with the Conservatives.
The Conservatives seem to be rowing back from the language in the Great Repeal Bill White Paper, saying they envisage new powers for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, whereas the Great Repeal White Paper talked of an “Expectation…of a significant increase in the decision-making power of each devolved administration”. And, in a move that the devolved administrations are likely to regard with deep suspicion, former EU structural fund spending will go not to the devolved governments but to a "UK Shared Prosperity Fund".
Labour’s manifesto establishes a "presumption of devolution" of EU powers relating to devolved functions – something the devolved administrations would say should happen automatically.
Nothing vs not much
Neither party makes much mention of the vast body of work to implement Brexit. The new system for EU migration promised by the Conservatives seems some way over the horizon. We have no more detail on how new customs arrangements might work – though Labour does commit to expanding Border Force. Only Labour mentions "transitional arrangements" – and its desire to remain in many existing EU collaborations and agencies would reduce some potential adjustment problems.
Life after Brexit
Not much vs even less
As we have noted, manifestos need to deal with life after Brexit as well as the negotiations. But these manifestos give only vague hints of what is to come. That is a problem, because these manifestos are supposed to last for the lifetime of a Parliament. In tone, the Conservatives see more opportunities – while Labour is more determined to see off potential threats.
Although Labour goes into more detail on how it will run trade negotiations, the Conservatives give more policy hints: we will withdraw from the Common Fisheries Policy and have a new fisheries policy. There will be a new agri-environment system to replace the Common Agricultural Policy – but current total payments will continue for the next one. We are also promised the 25-year environment plan (but that was a Liz Truss promise when she joined the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2015). One interesting point is the (welcome) emphasis on consultation on these – and drawing in external stakeholders, experts and the devolved administrations.
On trade, the Conservatives have more on building up the UK’s capacity to export – but Labour has more detailed ideas on how to defuse migration as a running policy sore (though the Conservatives promise a new integration strategy).