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Election manifestos should be studied closely by businesses to understand risk says Pinsent Masons’ Director of Public Policy Andrew Henderson

Posted: 8th November 2019

Election campaigns are not famed as periods of calm political reflection. That said, a five-week break from Westminster might be welcomed as a tonic by many, after what the country has witnessed so far this autumn.

October was long-anticipated to be a tumultuous and decisive month in the Brexit process. In the event, tumult was in abundance. Decision? Less so.

Lenin observed “there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen”. This seems apposite to the parliamentary month we have just witnessed, and the election we are now hurtling towards.

A challenge lies in determining precisely what is happening right now, and what impact this may have on the future fabric of our politics, democracy, society and business.

Attempting a measured assessment of this, while events are still unfolding apace, would be as much a fool’s errand as attempting to “call” December’s election result. To deploy a Blairism, the kaleidoscope has been shaken and the pieces are in flux. We don’t yet know where they will settle, and so cannot confidently predict the shape of our politics in the near, yet alone long term.

So what sense can we make of the situation at this time, and what can business do to stay on top of the political risk that continues to emanate from the exposed core of our fractured party system?

It would be understandable – given the scale and importance of the issue – to view this election almost entirely through a Brexit lens. Certainly, the result will colour our relations with Europe. A Conservative majority would almost certainly see Boris Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement V2.0 pass the Commons, opening a new phase of the saga in the form of trade negotiations and, domestically, heightened disquiet from other nations and regions of the UK, not least Scotland, who may envy Northern Ireland’s continued close proximity to the EU, and demand a similar settlement.

A Labour win, or hung parliament in which Jeremy Corbyn was able to form a government with the support of smaller parties, would increase the prospect of second referenda, on EU membership and, potentially, Scottish independence.

However, as Theresa May learned two years ago, at the expense of her parliamentary majority, elections which we expect to be defined by a single issue, rarely are. Events can and, as we have already seen this week, do knock political parties off their carefully crafted campaign platforms.

Granted, Brexit will provide the frame within which the General Election will play out. Amid the Leave/Remain cacophony and the distraction of political soap opera though, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that whoever gains the keys to No 10 will be elected to steer the direction of a huge swathe of domestic policy – much of which will be of direct and significant impact to business.

Notwithstanding recent events under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, and indeed the potential for a majority Conservative Government to repeal that legislation, as things currently stand, next month’s election will elect a parliament of MPs who will serve for five years, until 2024.

Consider the amount of water that has flowed under the bridge in the five years that have just passed (for context, the Scottish public has been called to the polls for nation-wide votes on no less than eight occasions during this period) and then ponder the amount of domestic policy that the government we are about to elect will have the time to pursue. Understanding what is on the menu policy-wise, beyond Brexit, is therefore of vital importance.

Thankfully, in the form of party manifestos which will be published over the coming weeks, we have a starter for ten when assessing the relative risks, and opportunities, that the domestic agendas of different political parties pose.

Of course, election manifestos do not provide an exhaustive guide to what a party will do when in office, especially in the event of a coalition or minority government, where policy horse-trading takes place to secure partner parties’ votes.

However, manifestos do provide a valuable steer on parties’ broad approach to issues and sectors, and in many instances, sufficiently granular proposals as to inform an organisation’s risk register.

Outside of the Westminster Bubble, party manifestos are rarely read cover-to-cover. This year they should be though – especially as most eyes will be focussed elsewhere.

Business Comment

Business Comment is the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce’s bi-monthly magazine. It provides insight on Edinburgh’s vibrant business community, with features on the city’s key sectors, interviews with leading figures and news on new business developments in the capital.
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