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Brexit News: For the UK, “strong and stable” Brexit may be off the table

by Lucinda Creighton

Last Thursday’s election outcome in the United Kingdom was supposed to deliver ‘strong and stable Government’ for the UK, just eight days before embarking on the official negotiations to leave the European Union.   It was supposed to deliver a strong mandate to Theresa May to pursue her route towards hard Brexit.   She was expected to increase her majority in the House of Commons by about 80 additional seats.  This in turn was supposed to silence critics in opposition parties, as well as in her own party, who believe that her promise to leave the European single market and the common market is an act of economic suicide. 

Instead the outcome of the election has set the UK on an even more uncertain course.  The country is now led by a lame duck Prime Minister, whose star has undoubtedly waned, and who will undoubtedly be ousted by her party colleagues within months.  The swagger of her Ministers and backbenchers in the Conservative party who were advocating a hard Brexit has been interrupted, with many of her more moderate colleagues now openly acknowledging that a greater consensus will have to be built with those who wanted to remain in the EU. 

It is now difficult for Brexiteers to claim with any credibility that they have a mandate to crash out of the European Union or to suggest that ‘No deal is better than a bad deal” as the Prime Minister herself has claimed on several occasions.  They simply have no mandate for this position.  The Conservatives won a (slim) overall majority in 2015 promising a referendum on EU membership but David Cameron and his colleagues were always clear that leaving the Single Market and the EU Customs Union was not an option.  Likewise, the referendum last year was fought by people like Michael Gove and Boris Johnson on the basis that the UK would leave the EU but stay within the single market. 

There was never a mandate for a hard Brexit.  It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, what the British public voted for.  Thus the failure of the British people last Thursday to endorse May’s hard-line approach can be interpreted as a re-affirmation of a more nuanced view of Brexit.  It is fair to say that British voters do not endorse the idea of customs controls and the reintroduction of a border on the island of Ireland.  They do not wish for the introduction of tariffs and the breakdown of supply chains with the EU.  It is impossible for Theresa May, so long as she stays in No 10 Downing street, or indeed for her colleagues around the cabinet table, to interpret the election result other than in this way.

Another interesting and surprising outcome of the election is the emergence of the Conservative party as a significant force in Scotland for the first time in decades.  The Tories gained thirteen seats in Scotland, bucking the disastrous trend for the party in the rest for the UK.  Had it not been for this extraordinary performance, it is likely that Theresa May would have resigned by now and another election would have been called. 

The key factor in this outlier result in Scotland, was the steady and impressive performance of Ruth Davidson, the Leader of the Scottish Conservatives.  While the party in Scotland is closely linked to the Conservative Party, it has carved out a distinct identity for itself with a different policy emphasis and even quite distinctive branding.  The most interesting development though, is the rise in stature of its Leader.  Unlike Theresa May, Ruth Davidson is seen to be an empathetic and genuine personality, who connects with voters and who is viewed as being extremely competent.  She is also in favour of a ‘flexible Brexit’ – one which does not cut the UK off from the rest of the continent.  Again the lesson here is stark.  May’s hard-line Brexit position was rejected by voters, while Davidson’s more open-minded approach has seen the Tories make significant gains in what has been a wasteland for the party since the 1980s.  This cannot go ignored in London. 

The question now is how will the Brexit negotiations progress and will the election outcome have much of an impact?  The official negotiations are scheduled to begin on June 19th, but given that the Tories have lost their majority in Parliament and are attempting to recalibrate, it is likely that either this date will be formally delayed, or that talks will officially begin with little substance being discussed.

The EU’s Chief Negotiator, Michel Barnier, has been clear in recent days that he is eager to proceed as quickly as possible, and spent hours in discussions with the UK’s two most important diplomats regarding Brexit on Monday.  However, neither he nor the British permanent civil service can ignore the major obstacles which now exist.  It was clear before the UK election that the timeline for Brexit was extraordinarily tight.  Any delay arising from the election outcome simply makes the entire process even more pressurised and difficult.  It is also the case that the tighter the timeframe, the weaker the position of the United Kingdom. 

Theresa May’s political skill has been cast in some doubt over the course of the disastrous election campaign.  However, she is still the Leader of the Conservative party and the country.  She will need to summon every bit of political guile she can muster in the weeks ahead, to try to steer her country past the various landmines that lie ahead.  The hard line Euro-sceptics in her party will want her to continue with the truculent approach we have seen since she assumed office last summer.  However, he only chance of success at this stage will be to extend a hand of reconciliation to the more reasonable characters in her own party and in the Opposition. 

She needs to begin to surround herself with moderate voices such as Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, and the Scottish Leader Ruth Davidson.  Neither of them has been prominent in framing the Government’s Brexit agenda in the course of the past year, but they now need to be brought in from the cold. And valued.  If Theresa May is to save the UK from a potentially catastrophic Brexit, then she needs to change her strategy now.  It is unlikely she can save her position as Prime Minister however – she will most likely be gone before the Tory party conference in October. 

Lucinda Creighton is a former Irish politician and CEO of Vulcan Consulting