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In the UK political system, what steps can the opposition take when the government fail to follow their manifesto?

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I do not in any way disagree with James K's answer, and he lists the main ways in which the Opposition holds a government accountable. However there is another mechanism he has not mentioned.

If a government pursues an unpopular line, its downfall can come from its own members, or it's coalition allies. UK MPs are elected individually, and their fortunes do not always mirror exactly the fortunes of their party. Those MPs that brought unpopular policies to an end, despite being part of the governing party, can be rewarded at the next election even when their leaders are being voted out.

Since the question is about what the opposition can do, they can talk to and work with potential dissenters in the government, persuading them to vote against the policy. This can be helped by the fact that MPs can have local interests not always aligned with national priorities. If the government promised to support the mining industry, for example, but are not doing so, it is often easy to persuade MPs from mining constituencies to vote with the opposition on the matter.

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    "If a government has a majority, but pursues an unpopular line, its downfall usually comes from its own members". I'm afraid this is not so. No majority government in the modern era has fallen by reason of MPs from the majority party voting against the government in a confidence motion. The last time something like that happened was in 1886 when prime minister William Gladstone sought and obtained a dissolution of Parliament after many Liberal MPs voted against the Irish Home Rule Bill, which he took to be a confidence matter. – user9876 Feb 25 '18 at 17:25
  • And it's normal for a government to be behind in the polls for much of its term, without that causing MPs from the majority party to vote against it in a no confidence motion. – user9876 Feb 25 '18 at 17:28
  • @ruffle True, and I probably shouldn't have mentioned a majority. But a confidence vote isn't necessary to the scenario. A more likely scenario is that significant opposition arises from within the governing party, and either the motion on the unpopular measure is defeated (which need not be a confidence vote) or the measure is abandoned when the government realizes it will not pass. The fact that it has not happened for 100 years does not mean it can't happen. It also has to be remembered that governments very rarely pursue measures they know to be unpopular and are not mandated. – DJClayworth Feb 25 '18 at 17:49
  • @ruffle Your government being voted down by your own MPs in the Parliament is the ultimate humiliation for a politician and it also hurts the party; so before that happens the MPs signal to the PM their unhappines and either the PM drops the issue or quits (for example Margaret Thatcher). – SJuan76 Feb 25 '18 at 20:41
  • @DJClayworth - A government bill can be defeated in either House because members from the majority party (or a party in a coalition) "rebel", yes, and this and forced withdrawals because of the threat thereof have happened many times. If you want to include those scenarios, I think you should use another word than "downfall" in your answer, because that word is almost always used to mean that a government has to leave office. – user8821 Feb 25 '18 at 20:57
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The can call the government out.

The parliamentary system allows for the leader of the opposition, and other MPs to have time each week to publicly put questions to the Prime Minister. Other Government ministers also have to attend the House of Commons to answer questions. The leader of the opposition can use this time to raise any failures of the Prime Minister (as he sees it) this could include raising the failure of the Government to fulfil a manifesto pledge.

The opposition also has access to the media and can use the media to highlight instances when the Government has not followed their manifesto.

I might note that this is not always considered a particularly effective attack on the Government, especially if the Government is not following a manifesto pledge that had been opposed by the opposition. If (for example) the government had pledged to "raise military spending", but the opposition had pledged to "cut military spending". And then the government broke its promise and cut spending, it would be strange for the opposition to spend much time attacking the government for following an opposition policy.

The opposition is not interested in forcing the government to follow manifesto pledges that the opposition opposes! But if there was a pledge that the opposition decided to support, and they could get enough backbenchers from the government party to vote with the opposition, they could force the government.

After 5 years, the opposition will hope that its actions over the parliament will have changed the minds of enough people that the government loses a general election.

So to summarise:

  • The Opposition can't force the government to do anything.
  • The Opposition may not want to force the government to follow its manifesto.
  • The Opposition can raise failures to follow a manifesto in Parliament and with the media and
  • The electorate can decide if they want a change of government at a general election.
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  • In short, they can ask government ministers about it in Parliament and they can tell people about it outside of Parliament. – user9876 Feb 25 '18 at 17:06

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