The Brexit election will not make Brexit easier for Mrs. May


by Brendan Donnelly, Director, The Federal Trust


Announcing her decision to call for a general election in June, the Prime Minister claimed that “every vote for the Conservatives will make me stronger when I negotiate for Britain with … the European Union.”  Although she did not say so, Mrs. May reportedly also believes that an increased Parliamentary majority after the election will strengthen her hand in dealing with internal dissent on the European issue within her own party. Mrs. May’s hopes are likely to be disappointed in both cases.

It appears that recent discussions with her European colleagues and their initial reaction to her triggering of Article 50 have finally convinced the Prime Minister of the daunting task she faces in making a “success” of the Brexit negotiations. She may perhaps approach this task with greater self-confidence if she has a larger Parliamentary majority to sustain her. But it would be naïve in the extreme to assume that the tactics and positioning of the EU’s negotiators will be affected in any significant way by the size of her majority. Donald Tusk’s uncompromising letter of 30th March accurately reflects a deeply-held and near-unanimous view in the rest of the EU that Brexit represents an act of self-harm which must be limited as far as possible to the perpetrators of this self-injury. Mr. Tusk’s neat phrase about the Union’s not wishing to punish the United Kingdom because the UK is punishing itself by leaving the Union encapsulates this reality.

Mr. Tusk and his colleagues harbour no petulantly punitive thoughts towards the UK. But their overwhelming goal in the Brexit negotiations will be to ward off the threat posed to the Union’s stability and solidarity by any suggestion that as outsiders the British can “have their cake and eat it.” The EU is constructed on the thesis that all its members benefit from the network of rights and obligations that they undertake towards each other.  The British desire to continue essentially to enjoy these benefits on the basis of reduced obligations is an assault on the Union’s founding principles which its remaining members cannot tolerate, however many Conservative MPs may wish for the contrary. It may be that in the coming years a new economic and political relationship between the UK and the EU can be worked out that is acceptable to both parties. But it is insular in the extreme to imagine that the difficulties inherent in such an enterprise can be significantly mitigated by a larger Parliamentary majority for Mrs. May. For most European governments and the politicians who run them, the EU represents an indispensable component of their country’s political identity. They are unlikely in any circumstances to be more willing after 8th June to put what they rightly regard as the EU’s precious achievements at risk in order to be able to sell a few more bottles of prosecco to British newly-weds.

If Mrs. May is unlikely to be able to impress her European negotiating partners with an enhanced Parliamentary majority, it is far from clear that she will end up impressing her Party in the way she wishes either. To have any chance of noticeably increasing her authority within the Parliament, she will need to attain a significantly bigger majority. Anything less, against a divided and ineffectual opposition, will be a distinct disappointment. There are a number of potential stumbling-blocks in her path over the coming weeks:

  • Voters may come to resent the self-interestedness of her decision to call an unnecessary General Election now;
  • there may well be further revelations about the expenses of Conservative candidates at the 2015 election;
  • the Electoral Commission is examining the financial returns of both major organizations urging a vote for Brexit in the referendum last year;
  • tactical voting may play an important role; Mrs. May’s talk of wanting a “good Brexit” with no plausible definition of what that might mean may come to seem increasingly threadbare as the campaign progresses;
  • the Liberal Democrats may make significant gains and these will be at the expense primarily of the Conservative Party.

All these factors may combine to limit, if not preclude entirely, a strengthened Parliamentary majority for Mrs. May.

In any case, an enhanced majority for Mrs. May will simply present her with another set of problems, deriving initially from the likely composition of the new House of Commons. The cohort of Conservative MPs elected on 8th June will be a much more radically Eurosceptic group than their predecessors, a small majority of whom favoured remaining in the EU in last year’s referendum. Even since then, the centre of gravity on the European issue in the Conservative Party has moved dramatically in the direction of unbridled antagonism towards the EU. Local Conservative branches will ensure that new candidates reflect this consolidation of Eurosceptic opinion, while current MPs will be required to give proof of their loyalty to the new prevailing orthodoxy on Europe before being allowed to stand again. Over the past 20 years, the radical Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party, while a minority in Parliament, has been strikingly successful in imposing its own agenda on successive Conservative leaders and governments. It is wholly implausible to argue that this process will be reversed after a General Election which will see their ranks and influence inevitably increased. It was a bizarre misreading of political reality by some operators in the financial markets when they apparently believed a new General Election would give Mrs. May more scope to conclude a “softer” Brexit than might otherwise be the case. This is precisely the reverse of the truth.

The Prime Minister may hope to be able to secure more favourable terms from her European partners by pointing to the greater number of irreconcilables on the backbenches and presenting herself as a bulwark against them. For reasons discussed above this tactic is unlikely to succeed. The negotiating guidelines of the Commission leaked to the Financial Times last Friday suggest that the Commission, representing the Council, is likely to insist on maximalist terms in the Article 50 negotiations, progress on which is a precondition for moving onto discussions about long-term trade relations between the UK and EU. The acquired rights of EU citizens living in the UK and the financial obligations of the UK arising from the EU budget are likely to be particularly intractable issues. It is almost inconceivable that a settlement on these matters can be achieved which will be acceptable to the EU27 as well as to Mrs. May’s new Parliamentary party. There must be a better than even chance that the Art 50 negotiations fall apart at the first hurdle before the question of the long-term economic relationship between the UK and EU is even broached.

Ironically, such a failure of the initial negotiations would spare Mrs. May another set of problems: those of defining, let alone achieving a “successful” Brexit. No such thing exists. There are only gradations of damage done to the UK by the manner in which it leaves the EU. There is no reason to believe that the Conservative Parliamentary Party after 8th June will be any better judge of these gradations than the current one. If anything, an enhanced Parliamentary majority for Mrs. May will make it more difficult for her to limit the damage inevitably caused by Brexit. There are certainly likely to be more Conservative MPs among the future intake who either refuse to believe in the reality of looming economic disruption caused by Brexit or believe that it is a price worth paying for “resuming control.”

The story is told of a young woman who rings her mother to complain that she has had a falling-out with her fiancé. When asked by her mother about the nature of the falling-out, she replies that she wanted a lavish, traditional wedding in a country church and he wanted to break off the engagement. There are parallels between the young woman’s situation and that of the UK in its approach to the EU. The starting-points and expectations of the two sides are so different that it is extremely difficult to envisage any coming together, despite the EU’s studied politeness and the UK’s self-absorbed optimism. That fundamental disparity of underlying analysis between the two is the probably irresolvable conundrum at the heart of the Brexit negotiations. The June General Election may well exacerbate it. Brexit will continue over the coming months and years to subject the current British party political system to possibly unbearable strain. No result of the General Election on 8th June will definitively answer the question whether the system will break apart under that strain or not. This question is incomparably the most important issue in current British politics. The recent recommendation of Tony Blair to put Europe before party politics in the coming election may be an interesting straw in the wind.  If, as is entirely possible, the forthcoming two years do see a reconfiguration of the present British party political landscape, the result of the forthcoming General Election will be a historical footnote at best.