I have the dubious distinction of having helped draft a manifesto for an election that was never held. In 2007, the No10 Policy Unit was mobilised to draft a manifesto at short notice, should it have been needed. It wasn’t. It is still on a hard drive somewhere.
Theresa May evidently learned the most important lesson of that debacle, which is not to let anyone speculate that you might call an election before you have actually done so (not that it took much working out). It surely helps that her closest confidantes and advisers are not fellow Cabinet ministers.
The forthcoming general election will be a national interest election, dominated by one big issue. That makes the party manifestos less important than during “normal” times. But it does not make them redundant. The now widely held view – shared by pundits and the markets alike – is that a snap election makes Brexit inevitable and a softer Brexit more likely. This is because the Prime Minister will secure a large majority, enabling her to marginalise those Eurosceptics agitating for “no deal” or WTO status, while also convincing the European Union that there is no turning back on Brexit.
If this is the Prime Minister’s strategy, she will need to drop her line that “no deal is better than a bad deal”. If that appears in the Conservative manifesto, it will empower, not neuter, the hardline Eurosceptics (It is also worth bearing in mind that if the Liberal Democrats make gains, they are likely to do so against soft Brexit or Remain Conservatives, and that if the older UKIP vote falls into the Conservative bloc, it will benefit Hard Brexiteers). If only for this issue, what is written in the Conservative manifesto will matter.
On current polls, the other manifesto that will matter most to post-election scenarios will be the SNP one. It will doubtless include a carefully crafted line on holding a second independence referendum before Brexit, which can then be claimed as an additional mandate for the SNP’s plans. But if Theresa May is true to her Conservative-Unionism (which, as Will Davies pointed out on Twitter has “an ugly Schmittian strain to it – an ideal of a single national community, where the only (internal) enemies are all in Westminster”) she will seek to trump that with a line in the Conservative manifesto that gives her authority to refuse the section 30 notice.
Those who draft manifestos agonise over lines like these, particularly when the general framework for the content is clear, as it is in 2017. The refusal of the Prime Minister to participate in leadership debates means that the manifesto launches will get more scrutiny than in the last two elections. They will inevitably cover the waterfront of policy, as they must. But the big issues are likely to hang on a small number of words.