What the party manifestos say about Brexit

Matthew Partridge looks at what each party’s manifesto says about Brexit and Britain’s future relationship with the EU.


Labour want a "soft" Brexit
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With the general election less than a fortnight away, it's a good time to look at the various party manifestos. My colleague Merryn Somerset Webb has written an in-depth article looking at their promises on a variety of topics, including tax, business and housing.

However, I will just focus on what the parties say about Brexit and Britain's (and Scotland's) future relationship with the EU, ranging from Ukip's ultra-hard Brexit to the Liberal Democrats' demand for a second referendum.


Unsurprisingly, Ukip want the hardest of hard Brexits. Indeed, they think that Article 50, which mandates a two-year process of exiting the EU, is too slow. Instead, they argue that "we have the legal right to withdraw from the EU unilaterally" by repealing the European Communities Act.

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They set out six "Brexit tests". These include that "Britain must be completely free from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice", "full control of immigration and asylum policies, and border control", "the UK's full maritime sovereignty must be restored and we must have control of our maritime exclusive economic zone".

They also pledge to leave both the single market and the customs union, refuse to pay any divorce bill, and leave by 2019.


The Conservatives pledge "to deliver a smooth and orderly departure from the European Union and forge a deep and special partnership with our friends and allies across Europe". They also raise the possibility of continuing to make some contributions, saying "there may be specific European programmes in which we might want to participate and if so, it will be reasonable that we make a contribution".

They also remain open to paying at least a partial divorce bill, stating that, "we will determine a fair settlement of the UK's rights and obligations as a departing member state, in accordance with the law and in the spirit of the UK's continuing partnership with the EU". However, they emphasise that, "we will no longer be members of the single market or customs union".

The manifesto also promises that they will "establish an immigration policy that allows us to reduce and control the number of people who come to Britain from the European Union". Indeed, they aim to reduce total net migration to "the tens of thousands, rather than the hundreds of thousands we have seen over the last two decades". Given the importance that EU negotiators have ascribed to maintaining freedom of movement, this would seem to rule out a Swiss style solution (Switzerland enjoys wide access to the single market in return for essentially free movement of people).

Finally, the Conservatives seemingly rule out a post-Brexit transitional period, aiming "to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside our withdrawal, reaching agreement on both within the two years allowed by Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union". They also leave the option of a hard Brexit (i.e. on WTO terms) on the table if Brussels doesn't offer sufficiently generous terms as they "continue to believe that no deal is better than a bad deal for the UK".


In contrast, the Labour Party pledges to aim for a much softer Brexit, committing to "scrap the Conservatives' Brexit White Paper and replace it with fresh negotiating priorities that have a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union".

They also state that, "leaving the EU with no deal' is the worst possible deal for Britain and that it would do damage to our economy and trade". As a result they "will reject no deal' as a viable option and if needs be negotiate transitional arrangements to avoid a cliff-edge' for the economy".

While Labour accepts that, "freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union" they also pledge to scrap hard targets and make sure that "new rules will be equally informed by negotiations with the EU and other partners.

This raises the possibility of a compromise solution, such as a requirement to access jobs in certain sectors to UK nationals first, while allowing EU citizens to apply if no suitable candidates could be found. They also pledge to ban migrants from accessing benefits.


The SNP have delayed the formal launch of their manifesto until next week. However, their website confirms that they still agree with the policy outlined in their December policy document, "Scotland's place in Europe".

This states, that while their preferred solution is an independent Scotland as a full member of the EU, they are willing to "compromise", provided Scotland remains in the single market and as many EU powers as possible that are returned to the UK in the areas are given to the Scottish parliament, including all those in devolved areas.

Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats are the most pro-European as they "passionately believe that Britain's relationship with its neighbours is stronger as part of the European Union". While they "acknowledge the result of the 2016 referendum", in their view it only "gave the government a mandate to start negotiations to leave".

This means that they oppose "leaving the single market, ending freedom of movement and abandoning the customs union". After any exit deal is negotiated they want a referendum "with the alternative option of staying in the EU on the ballot paper" as "there is no deal as good for the UK outside the EU as the one it already has as a member".

Given that Ukip, SNP and Liberal Democrats are all unlikely to form the next government, the main debate is between the Labour and Conservative manifestos. The Conservatives seem to want a "grey exit" that would fall short of a Norwegian or even Swiss-style relationship, and would be a slightly enhanced version of the Canada-EU trade deal. Labour wants something very close to a Swiss style deal, though it gives them enough wiggle room to negotiate a closer relationship.

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri