“Campaign in poetry, Govern in prose” is a phrase attributed to US Democrat politician Mario Cuomo.
Translated into more cynical language it means – campaign in lofty (but ill-defined) slogans and ‘big ideas’ but avoid putting too much detail into it – real life governing isn’t that simple.
Theresa May would almost certainly love to do exactly that. She is very good at ‘talking the talk’. Since winning the Tory leadership and becoming PM she has made lots of sweeping, but not well defined, commitments. Her instinct would almost certainly to try and do the same in her GE2017 Manifesto.
But she has a problem she ought to be considering. Manifesto’s matter – especially and paradoxically, I would argue for a government with a large majority.
Why? because much of May’s agenda requires legislation and that means approval by both the Commons and the Lords, where the Tories do not and will not (barring radical steps) have a majority.
In our bicameral system their Lordships see their role as the ‘check’ in the check and balances’ – especially when a Government dominates absolutely the Commons.
Of course in our lop-sided, executive (Government) dominated, system the PM has huge powers at her disposal. She can re-organise the machinery of government almost at will with only the lightest of retrospective Parliamentary approval needed. Decisions about tax and spend are reserved to the House of Commons and they have very little say in the matter as I have explained before.
It is only when it comes to legislation that the Government has to really pay attention to the Lords – but the next Government is going to be primarily a legislative ‘heavy’ one. Firstly, it has to push through a huge amount of legislation to enact Brexit. Much of her non-Brexit agenda – e.g. grammar schools – will also require legislation.
The traditional way to pre-empt Lords opposition is to put pledges in the Party Manifesto so they are then covered by the law and conventions of the Parliament Acts. But that means “campaigning in prose” – putting specific pledges into the Manifesto in reasonably unambiguous terms.
Mrs May is already showing herself very adept and motivated at only ever “campaigning in poetry” – she delights in slogans like “Brexit means Brexit” and avoiding any commitments to specifics (and even when she does she ‘s happy to break them – like over the calling of the General election).
She also seems to want to avoid all Parliamentary scrutiny – by Commons or Lords – as much as possible – otherwise why did the Government fight the Court cases over Parliaments role in Brexit?
I suspect the way through this will be to make vague or misleading ‘poetic’ Manifesto commitments and then try to argue these are sufficient to overcome any objections in the Lords to the ‘prose’ of government? Whether the Lords will buy it is another question.