There is nothing to back soft Brexit expectations
The UK election has seen pundits lurch from one misguided certainty to another
17 June, 2017
Nature abhors a vacuum - and political commentators abhor a vote without a narrative. So it is that pundits are lining up to proclaim the British election “the end of hard Brexit.” This is far from certain. At this point, it is not clear that a softer Brexit is any more likely than it was before the election.
True, PM Theresa May, who had championed a hard Brexit since she came to power, did not achieve the majority she hoped for. Equally true is the fact that the opposition Labour Party surpassed all expectations, while the anti-Brussels UK Independence Party was wiped out. But there are a few caveats to add at this point.
May claimed that she called the election to resolve divisions in Westminster over Brexit. Yet there was no real division between the major parties: Labour had just applied a three line whip to induce its MPs to support the Conservatives' triggering of Article 50. Moreover, neither party campaigned on a Brexit-based platform. The Conservatives focused almost exclusively on personal leadership, while Labour railed against domestic austerity. Labour rejected May's farcical claim that 'no deal' was a tolerable outcome, but they also pledged to end freedom of movement and to exit the single market.
The two parties that did campaign for a softer Brexit received little public backing. The Liberal Democrats made opposing hard Brexit the centerpiece of their offer and were rewarded with a paltry net gain of four seats, and obtained those on an even lower vote share than their disastrous 2015 result. The Scottish National Party also campaigned for a softer Brexit and promptly lost 21 seats – over half their total. Hardly a ringing endorsement for today's narrative of a “Revenge of the Remainers.”
So the British public didn't vote for a softer Brexit – but that isn't the only factor at play. Theresa May has been forced into a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland in order to cobble together a wafer-thin majority in Parliament. This is a crutch that may force the prime minister to compromise with a range of actors within and beyond her party on a series of issues, including Brexit.
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, who helped the Tories win 13 extra seats north of the border, has urged May to “look again” at her Brexit plans. May's Chancellor, Philip Hammond, was on Monday rumoured to be drumming up support in the City of London for a move to soften the government's line. Former Tory Prime Ministers David Cameron and John Major have urged May to reconsider her firm stance. And even prominent Leave campaigner Michael Gove - newly promoted to May’s Cabinet - has proposed a 'consensual' approach in partnership with other parties.
These proposals will face fierce pushback, however, from hardcore Eurosceptic backbenchers within the Tory party. As noted last month, many European leaders hoped May would secure a decisive electoral victory. This was because they understood that the real threat to her authority would come not from reluctant remainers unwilling to accept a severance, but from hardcore eurosceptics unwilling to entertain any continuing ties between the UK and EU. Now that she has been badly wounded, these vultures are circling.
Moreover, it is not even clear whether such a consensual approach is possible, or what it would look like. Everyone knows the pro-European positions of the Lib Dems, Scottish National Party, and Greens. But the most important players now are Labour and the DUP. And no one really knows what they stand for on Brexit.
Northern Ireland is vulnerable to a hard border with its European neighbour, the Republic of Ireland. The DUP will push hard to avoid such an outcome. But the party is also a staunch promoter of British nationalism and a strong proponent of the idea that Britain should be free to strike its own trade deals around the world – which means being outside the EU customs union. How these two factors will resolve themselves is anyone’s guess.
Labour is perhaps an even greater conundrum. Prominent Labour centrist Yvette Cooper has called for a cross-party Brexit commission in a bid to soften the government’s position. But the position of her own party is far from clear. For starters, we do not know whether Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn wants a softer Brexit. He was a lukewarm supporter of the Remain campaign, and many aspects of EU policy are at odds with his traditional left-wing values. Keeping Britain in the Single Market, for example, would require continued adherence to a range of regulations he personally disagrees with.
More importantly, Labour's surprising success last week depended to a significant extent on hedging its Brexit stance: The party drew support from young, metropolitan pro-Europeans as well as older Leave voters in Northern rust-belt towns. Corbyn expects another general election before the year’s end and on Tuesday told his MPs to “remain in permanent campaign mode.” This likely means the party cannot take a strong ‘soft Brexit’ line for fear of alienating its Leave-voting supporters. It also means it is unlikely to forge a consensual approach with the government: better to let the Conservatives put forward their own Brexit bills, vote against them and trigger another election.
Finally, there is the ticking hand of time. A softer Brexit – which would keep Britain in the customs union or single market and involve a deal on freedom of movement, ECJ jurisdiction and many other complex matters – will take more time to negotiate. But the deadline for the end of talks is already set in stone. And while all this turmoil unfolds in British politics, time marches on with its customary indifference.
The UK has already squandered one-eighth of the negotiating time made available when Article 50 of the EU treaty was triggered, and if another election is called, it will lose far more still. With each day that passes without a British negotiating position, the chances rise of the hardest of all Brexits – no deal at all.
Not that I am predicting a hard Brexit. I was catastrophically wrong about the UK election and have no intention of making any grandiose predictions in the near future. My point is that, for a brief moment, the UK election caused political pundits to question their certainties and wonder about the distortions of group-think. Yet five minutes later they were tripping over each other to agree that the result heralds a new direction for Brexit.
It doesn’t. If the election result revealed anything, it is the need for more humility on the part of political commentators. What kind of Brexit will we end up with? I don't know.
The author is Communications Manager at the European Council on Foreign Relations. The article was originally published by the ECFR.