Negotiating the impossible? Brexit after the election

Multiple scenarios now exist for the imminent Brexit negotiations. An informed deliberation over the options must be the immediate way forward

Simon BulmerThe June 2017 general election has proved to be a seismic event, like the EU referendum just under a year earlier.  Called by Prime Minister May in order to strengthen her negotiating hand in the Brexit negotiations, it has led to precisely the opposite.  Moreover, if Brexit was supposed to be the trigger for the election, it did not feature that prominently in the campaign, although the Liberal Democrats put a second referendum on the EU at the heart of their campaign, but to little avail.

During the Conservatives’ presidential-style campaign little of the detail of the Brexit negotiating strategy was discussed and the emphasis was placed on giving May’s ‘strong and stable’ government a strong mandate from the electorate.  Where any reference to their Brexit strategy was made it was limited and referred to the government’s 77-page White Paper, published in January.  As part of this twelve-point plan the government had concluded that it could not remain in the single market or the customs union, for they would not be compatible with controlling immigration.  Immigration had taken priority in determining policy.

How practical is this negotiating strategy for Brexit in light of the election outcome?

First, any set of negotiations, especially one as complex as Brexit, requires clarity on the part of the negotiators.  Yet following the election it is now the EU’s 27 member governments that have a clear strategy and the UK government’s that has been thrown into doubt.  Uncertainty arises not only because of the absence of an overall Conservative majority in Parliament but also because of the multiple causes behind the election result diverging so greatly from the clear lead of up to 20 percentage points at the outset of the campaign.  Different wings of the Conservative Party are drawing diverging conclusions, and this is reflected in journalists’ commentary as well.

The relegation of the UK Independence Party to the margins was achieved by virtue of Theresa May embracing a ‘hard Brexit’, i.e. leaving the customs union and single market.  Yet whilst May’s campaign sought to attract former UKIP voters in the north of England, she paid insufficient attention to some of her own strongholds.  Her attention to the 48 per cent who voted Remain seemed very limited.  Particularly in London Remain supporters punished the Conservatives’ ‘hard Brexit’ approach, although other factors were also in play, since health and economic policy were more important issues for voters.  Meantime the Scottish National Party, which had exploited the Brexit vote to justify raising the question of a second independence referendum, has suffered losses to Labour and Conservatives that will not help its efforts to push for a special deal enabling Scotland to remain in the single market.  After the election its voice may not have the same political clout.

Yet the territorial dimension of Brexit is now focused on Northern Ireland.  Theresa May’s decision to seek a confidence and supply arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party now exposes the Conservative government much more to concerns about how to avoid a hard border as the price of leaving the single market.  Quite apart from the risk of the arrangement making it more difficult to re-establish the power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland, unexpectedly the 13 Conservatives in Scotland are also of great significance to the stability of a further May government.  Their leader Ruth Davidson has already sought assurances that the DUP’s socially conservative policies on abortion and gay rights will not be taken on board.

The official machinery for consulting Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on Brexit is the Joint Ministerial Committee on Europe (JMCe), which received considerable criticism in Scotland for failing to take Scottish proposals seriously.  Any suggestion that the DUP is securing privileged access outside this machinery will provoke governments in Edinburgh and Cardiff.  They will doubtless be hoping that the JMCe will now have a wider significance because of the UK government’s reduced majority.  Yet Ruth Davidson might form an alternative conduit for Scottish input rather than the SNP government, making matters worse.

Yet the real issue is that minority governments are exceptionally time-consuming, as large amounts of time have to be dedicated to the parliamentary arithmetic in the House of Commons, not just in the chamber but also for committee readings of legislation.  With no Conservative majority in the House of Lords, passing legislation is going to require lots of political resources.  The Conservative Party, which called a referendum to try and discipline its own party on Europe as well as an election to strengthen its negotiating hand—failing on both counts—is going to be difficult to manage.  Those favouring a soft Brexit, such as former ministers Nicky Morgan and Anna Soubry, will have been emboldened by the election, while supporters of a hard Brexit such as Iain Duncan Smith or John Redwood will be defending their position.  Party management will be a major challenge.

With questions already raised as to whether the civil service has enough resources to handle the complex Brexit negotiations and instability in the government it may be difficult to make much progress.  It is worth remembering that when John Major had a small majority at the end of his second government (1992-7) negotiations on EU treaty reform had to be put on ice until after the 1997 general election—won by Blair’s New Labour—to finalise the treaty.  The UK government led by Major could not produce a negotiating position due to party divisions.  And this was not a minority government!  With Brexit, however, the negotiating consequence will be that time slips by on the fixed, two-year time-scale for completing the Article 50 process and the prospect of a hard Brexit approaches.  Yet that outcome could be rejected by Parliament, causing real deadlock in 2019.

The Prime Minister’s approach appears to be to continue with Plan A.  Senior figures in the Conservative Party have rallied to support May, realising that a leadership election might tear the party apart at a time when the Labour Party is in the ascendant.  Yet the position of the Labour Party is rather ambiguous.  Whilst wanting a better negotiating atmosphere and to place the emphasis on what is best for the economy, their ambiguous formula of retaining ‘access to’ the single market might turn out to be make little practical difference to what can be obtained from the EU.  The DUP’s hope for a soft border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is going to run up against how this will be possible with the UK outside the customs union, for the arrangements could then run up against World Trade Organisation rules.

So, what do the different scenarios look like for the months ahead on Brexit?  One is that, after an unstable summer, there has to be another general election to try and obtain a government with enough of a majority to negotiate with the EU.  A second is that Prime Minister May really learns the lessons of her catastrophic election campaign and governs in a more collegial manner.  The idea of her being the chief negotiator on Brexit was implausible due to the sheer pressures of being prime minister.  Might she come to realise that the problems of party management necessitate resorting to a further referendum, like Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson did in 1974 and Cameron likewise more recently?  Party management would again be papered over and the choice passed to the electorate.  The more radical third scenario would be to create a cross-party approach to Brexit negotiations.  Such a step towards deliberative decision-making would be completely at odds with the adversarial politics of Westminster and would require discipline on all sides.  Yet the circumstances are exceptional and a more sensible form of preference-formation would make the outcome more sustainable than one that does not consider all options in an open-minded way.

The June 2016 referendum on EU membership threw up more questions than it answered.  Some voters took the opportunity to give a bloody nose to Westminster elites.  Others were offered a false prospectus on the £350m savings per week that would ensue from withdrawal from the EU.  Others still made an informed decision in favour of Brexit.  The general election result has also been determined by conflicting motives.  Meantime global politics have become increasingly unstable and the terror attacks have raised new concerns.  Finding the way to address these problems, exit the EU and map the UK’s post-Brexit destiny is a huge challenge.  An informed deliberation over the options is surely the way forward.