Brexit, British Government, Brussels, Juncker

Election Disappointment for Conservatives Complicates Brexit

Date: June 2017

EXITPOLLNever have the words of former UK prime minister, Harold Wilson, sounded so true: a week is a long time in politics. Last Monday, the current (for now) UK prime minister, Theresa May, was confident of returning to parliament this week after last Thursday’s general election with an increased majority, allowing her to remake the government in her own image. She expected to face a crushed and broken Labour Party across the aisle. Instead, she is the one who is crushed and broken, losing her previously slim, but workable, majority in the House of Commons, leaving her dependent on the votes of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) from Northern Ireland. How long this political arrangement will last is anyone’s guess.

May called the election to boost her majority and strengthen her hand in the Brexit negotiations with the European Union. She has clung on to government not as the “strong and steady” Theresa, as she liked to portray herself, but as “weak and wobbly”. Her European colleagues now know that she ducks at the sound of gunfire. A former cabinet colleagues has described her as a “dead woman walking”.

So, what are the possible implications of all this for Brexit?

  • Is there a majority in the House of Commons for the “Hard Brexit” that May wanted to push through? “Hard Brexit” is defined as not only leaving the European Union but leaving the Single Market and the Customs union as well. May believes that she can hang onto all the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union through a trade deal, but the EU will never offer that. They have absolutely no incentive to do so. The DUP, on whom the government is now dependent, want to stay in the Customs Union so as to prevent the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The Scottish Conservatives want to stay in the Single Market, and now have 12 seats in the House of Commons. It is likely that trade union pressure will push the leadership of the Labour Party towards supporting some sort of Single Market deal, despite what they are currently saying.
  • Had May got the overwhelming mandate she sought she would effectively have taken the House of Lords out of play. UK constitutional convention has it that the Lords cannot block government proposals if they were set out in the party’s election manifesto. Now, a minority Conservative government will struggle to get legislation through both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. It is extremely difficult to see how the government is going to get the legislation that is needed to facilitate Brexit onto the statute book before March 2019. And the rest of the European Union is in no mind to cut the always troublesome “Brits” any slack by “suspending” the Article 50 timeline.
  • Over the past year anyone who questioned the hardest of hard Brexits was shouted down as a “saboteur” of the “will of the people” as expressed in the June 23 referendum. In that referendum, it is worth recalling, only 37% of the total electorate voted to leave the European Union. You could not call a strike on the London Underground, or in any other business, with those numbers. Is it now arguable that a “new will of the people” as expressed in last week’s vote takes precedence over the June 23 referendum decision, or, at the very least, forces a rethink as to what it is to mean? In a democracy, the people are always entitled to rethink, or reverse, a political decision.
  • Many politicians were reluctant to speak out because of rightwing “tabloid terrorism”, vicious attacks from the likes of the Sun, Daily Mail and Express. In the run in to last week’s election, in poker terms, the tabloids went “all in” in their support of the Conservatives and in attacking Labour. They went “all in” and lost the gamble. Who, under the age of 45, now cares what they have to say, apart from those who write for them? Has “tabloid terrorism” been swept away by the tsunami of social media? Is there now a window of opportunity to reopen the debate on what Brexit should mean? When the young voted in this election, in numbers not seen for many years, and certainly not during the referendum, their largely pro-EU views rescued Jeremy Corbyn’s beleaguered Labour Party. Will they be repaid with a less euro-sceptical stance from the Leader of the Opposition?”
  • Most readers of this Briefing have a great deal of labour negotiations experience. One of the first question any labour negotiator asks is: do the other side know what they want and can they deliver on a deal? With less than a week to go before the Brexit talks are due to begin, and with Theresa May saying she will stick to the March 2019 deadline, we still do not know what the UK wants. Further, there is now considerable doubt that the incoming government can deliver anything at all. And the clock is running, started by the UK government sending the Article 50 letter to the EU at the end of March last. Mrs. May then wasted another seven weeks by calling an unnecessary election. The very difficult situation that the UK’s Conservative government finds itself in is entirely of its own making. What was always a weak negotiating hand to start with has been turned into practically no hand at all.
  • It has become all too clear that there was little, if any, economic upside to Brexit. The real and present tangible benefits that flow from membership of the Single Market and the Customs Unions are being put at risk for what? The fantasy of a recreated British Empire, jokingly referred to by UK civil servants as Empire 2:0. For businesses Brexit creates nothing but uncertainty. Will we be able to fill jobs? Can we bring in talented and skilled workers from Europe? Will data flows within and between businesses continued uninterrupted? Will our goods be subjected to long delays at ports, with negative consequences for “just-in-time” supply chains? “Tabloid terrorism” and the raucous voices of the extreme Brexiters cowed many from speaking up and raising these concerns. We believe that now is the time for business to seize the opportunity and say that the UK should stay in the Single Market and the Customs Union.
  • The UK economy is already showing signs of slowing down. The last thing it needs is to crash out of the EU, the Single Market and the Customs Union.
  • Time to say enough is enough.

Executive Director,
June 12 2017