The Conservatives’ 2019 general election manifesto promised to “get Brexit done” and “unleash Britain’s potential”.
And while the party is nominally committed to the election-winning policy platform, it is difficult to overstate the changes to the Tories, the UK and the wider world in the last three years.
Not only is Boris Johnson no longer prime minister, but the manifesto preceded the war in Ukraine, the cost-of-living crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Grant Shapps, a senior Tory MP and a backer of Rishi Sunak, said the potential new prime minister is standing on the 2019 set of promises.
“We elect a party and we elect individuals as members of that party, and the 2019 manifesto is actually the thing – the document, if you like – that Rishi is standing on,” he told Sky News on Monday.
So, with the UK now about to have its second prime minister in only a matter of weeks, where does the 2019 manifesto fit into the changed landscape of British politics?
In 2019, the party promised to give the NHS “its biggest ever cash boost, with 20 hospital upgrades and 40 new hospitals, while delivering 50,000 more nurses and 6,000 more doctors, and creating an extra 50 million general practice appointments a year”.
Mr Johnson’s oft-repeated promise of 40 new hospitals by 2030 had faced questions, even before his forced exit as prime minister. But with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt indicating that Government departments will be required to see through a fresh round of “efficiency savings”, it is unclear what that means for NHS spending in the years ahead.
As a recent report by the Institute for Government and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy found, the current level of health spending is below what is needed to deal with pandemic-linked backlogs, while the NHS wage bill will increase by £2 billion over the next year, which officials will have to find from existing budgets.
It is likely to mean further tough questions on NHS spending for the new administration.
Mr Johnson’s 2019 election-winning promise to “get Brexit done” came with the pledge to “ensure that Northern Ireland’s businesses and producers enjoy unfettered access to the rest of the UK and that, in the implementation of our Brexit deal, we maintain and strengthen the integrity and smooth operation of our internal market”.
To the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and other unionists in Northern Ireland, that promise remains unfulfilled amid continuing opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The row has also upended devolved governance in the region, with the DUP blocking a return to powersharing.
The issue remains unresolved, despite hopes in recent weeks that the UK and the EU could be close to some form of compromise amid restarted talks.
Whether the next prime minister picks up the baton of UK-EU talks remains to be seen, with Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker arguing on Sunday that the only successful policy which can be carried through for the region is the one already in place.
The 2019 manifesto said the Conservatives would not “raise the rates of income tax, national insurance or VAT”, while also expressing a desire not to just “freeze taxes, but to cut them too”.
When Liz Truss introduced her disastrous mini-budget, after spending the summer campaigning on a platform of tax cuts and a promise to reverse the rise in national insurance, there was some insistence that she was simply being faithful to the 2019 manifesto.
Despite Mr Hunt ripping up vast swathes of Ms Truss’s economic vision, the plans to cut national insurance contributions and a reduction in stamp duty, which are already going through Parliament, are so far continuing.
It remains to be seen if such plans survive under the next prime minister and whether or not Mr Hunt will still be in charge of the Treasury.
More broadly, it is unclear where and how the next prime minister will choose to plug the multibillion-pound fiscal blackhole but Mr Hunt has signalled that tax rises in some areas cannot be ruled out.
He has already confirmed the scrapping of April’s planned 1p cut to the basic rate of income tax, which will stay at 20p indefinitely, raising an extra £6 billion a year.
– Triple lock
The 2019 manifesto was clear: “We will keep the triple lock.”
In what turned out to be the dying days of her premiership, Ms Truss insisted she was “completely committed” to the triple lock on state pensions.
Ministers had been reportedly considering ditching the manifesto promise due to the squeeze on the public finances in the wake of the mini-budget fiasco.
The incoming prime minister is not necessarily bound to stick to that commitment, although the political pressure surrounding pensions for the Conservatives may mean that the triple lock does remain in place.
– Online Safety Bill
In 2019, the Tories committed to making “the UK the safest place in the world to be online – protecting children from online abuse and harms, protecting the most vulnerable from accessing harmful content, and ensuring there is no safe space for terrorists to hide online – but at the same time defending freedom of expression”.
The Online Safety Bill has faced delays, but Ms Truss had insisted that she was committed to the legislation and to bringing it back to Parliament in the coming weeks.
During the race to become Tory leader, Mr Sunak had spoken of concerns about the “legal but harmful content” section of the Bill; it remains to be seen when and in what form the Bill does return to Parliament as planned under a new prime minister.
– Defence spending
In 2019, even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Conservatives committed to “exceed the Nato target of spending 2% of GDP on defence and increase the budget by at least 0.5% above inflation every year of the new Parliament”.
Ms Truss went further, with a promise to raise defence spending to 3% of GDP by 2030.
But with a new prime minister and expected spending cuts all round, it remains to be seen if that commitment is sacrosanct and how far the new administration’s ambition outstrips that 2019 target.
On the campaign trail in August, Mr Sunak said he viewed the Nato defence spending target of 2% of GDP as a “floor and not a ceiling” and noted that spending is set to rise to 2.5% “over time”, but refused to set “arbitrary” goals.
Fracking is and remains a controversial issue for the Conservatives, with the topic helping to further split the party as Ms Truss struggled to retain her authority.
In 2019 the Tories promised not to back fracking “unless the science shows categorically that it can be done safely”.
Having watched Ms Truss struggle over the issue, it is perhaps unlikely that the next prime minister would want to face a rebellion over fracking just weeks after taking office.
While there is not necessarily a need for Tory MPs to be granted a vote on the subject, the strength of feeling among backbench MPs was obvious after Labour’s bid to ban fracking caused chaotic scenes in the Commons.
The next prime minister could either revert to the 2019 commitment or kick the issue into the long grass.
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