Beyond Brexit: Five constitutional policies in the Tory manifesto

23 May 2017

Few commentators, politicians or even voters believe that Theresa May won’t win the June 8th general election. The most likely outcome seems to be a Tory victory with an increased majority, possibly even a large one. Therefore, a lot of attention was rightly given to last week’s launch of the Conservative Party’s manifesto.


Most of the reporting understandably focused on the more controversial elements like the so called ‘dementia tax’, a change to the financing of care for pensioners, that prompted harsh criticism from the opposition. Brexit, the cause of this snap election, also played an important role and dominated the coverage of the constitutional issues in the Conservative manifesto.


This however meant that other constitutional reforms besides Brexit went mostly unnoticed. This may be in part down to the fact that in true conservative tradition these changes are incremental and not all that dramatic, however given the significance constitutional issues have in every polity, they surely merit a closer look. Here, therefore, are the five most important constitutional policies in the Tory manifesto.



1. Devolution

Devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and local government in England surely has been the most significant constitutional development of the last 20 years in UK politics. In 2017, the Conservatives pledge not only to retain the devolved powers, but to increase them when Brexit means that policy areas that have long been out of the control of the UK will be repatriated (p.31). As the negotiations have not commenced yet and the new EU-UK settlement seems to be a couple of years away, more precise details on Brexit’s effect on devolution cannot be spelt out at this moment and the manifesto therefore remains vague.


2. Fixed-term Parliaments Act

The mere fact that there is a snap election this year proves the impotence of the Fixed-term Parliaments act, designed to curb the Prime Minister’s power to call an election at his or her choosing. A vital part of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition agreement to cope with the new reality of two-party governments, the end of the coalition and the return of majorities for one party means that the FTPA has served its purpose and will be repealed should the Tories win the election (p.43).



3. Boundary review

One of the most fought-over pieces of legislation during the coalition years was the (originally failed) attempt to review and redraw the constituencies for general elections in the UK. After the Liberal Democrats stopped the implementation by voting against it in parliament in 2013, the Conservative majority government later reintroduced it and the Conservatives have pledged to go ahead with the new boundaries as well as the reduction of seats in the House of Commons from 650 to 600 (p.42-43).



4. Voter ID

Probably the most controversial Tory policy on constitutional matters – the Conservatives promise to make it mandatory to show photo ID when voting (p.43). Advocates of such a policy argue that this reduces the chance of voter fraud, while opponents claim it merely discourages voting, especially for poorer citizens. However, the manifesto does not go into much detail and therefore the possible consequences and the scale of potential problems remain rather unclear.



5. House of Lords

Whilst the Tory manifesto states that 'comprehensive reform [of the House of Lords] is not a priority' it does point to the somewhat successful reforms of the near past – e.g. the introduction of retirement of members of the upper chamber – and points to two areas of potential future reform (p.43). Firstly, the manifesto addresses the issue of the primacy of the House of Commons – something that could become very contentious should the Lords intervene too vehemently with regards to the government’s Brexit deal.


Secondly, the Conservatives indicate that the size of the Lords might be up for debate. With eight-hundred members, the upper chamber is huge and will only continue to grow - something many find difficult to defend while at the same time cutting the numbers of the elected members of the House of Commons (see 3). Under Theresa May the House of Lords therefore might not see dramatic changes, although some smaller reforms could be on the cards.




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