The UK and Europe
The British General Election's silence on Brexit
Andrew Grice / Jun 2017
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the UK Labour Party. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
When Theresa May called the UK’s surprise general election, she argued that it was necessary to stop opponents of Brexit jeopardising her preparations at home and the Government’s negotiating position in Europe. Every vote for her would strengthen her hand in the talks, she claimed. A “Brexit election” enabled her ruling Conservative Party to frame a choice between her “strong and stable” leadership with what they claimed was a weak Labour Opposition leader in Jeremy Corbyn.
Yet it has not been a “Brexit election” after all. This is not because the campaign was interrupted by the horrific terrorist attacks at the Manchester Arena and London Bridge. Even before Manchester, the spotlight had turned to public services, the preferred territory of Labour, whose manifesto made a long list of spending promises. After an unhappy campaign marred by her own goal on the funding of social care for the elderly, May returned to Brexit a week before the election to highlight the choice of prime ministers facing the nation.
All along she failed to spell out any new detail of what Brexit would mean. Without that, the media was never going to focus on Brexit for a seven-week campaign. Inevitably, Conservative ministers argued that they could not declare their negotiating hand ahead of the negotiations due to start on 19 June. On some issues their excuse was valid, such as the UK’s divorce settlement, which could provide an early stumbling block in the talks. But the Tories could have said more about the system of EU migration after Brexit – such as when free movement would end and whether EU citizens would have preferential access to the labour market. Similarly, there was no discussion of a transition deal to prevent a “cliff edge” when the UK leaves in March 2019.
The Tory manifesto dodged the question of a continuing role for the European Court of Justice (ECJ), leaving wide open how trade, regulations, policing and justice and citizens’ rights would be overseen after Brexit. The contrast between the more transparent approach by the EU over its negotiating mandate is marked.
The only substantive difference between the Tories and Labour is that May insists that “no deal is better than a bad deal” --without explaining why or addressing the potentially damaging consequences of WTO tariffs and non-tariff barriers—while Labour rejects “no deal” as the worst possible option.
There is a contradiction in Labour’s stance: the party accepts that free movement will end but wants to retain the benefits of the single market. Labour has been more explicit than the Tories on EU migration, saying that EU citizens would be able to enter Britain if they had a job offer. It would immediately guarantee the rights of the three million EU citizens in the UK and would consider a role for the ECJ in trade disputes, but not in upholding citizens’ rights as the EU wants.
The Liberal Democrats, traditionally the UK’s third party, have failed to make progress in appealing to the 48 per cent who voted Remain in last year’s referendum. They offered a second referendum on the exit deal but remained stuck at around 8 per cent in the opinion polls.
By keeping her plans vague, May in effect invited people to confirm the referendum result. Indeed, a YouGov survey suggested that the new divide is between Hard Leavers (45 per cent) plus former Remainers dubbed Re-Leavers (23 per cent), making a total of 68 per cent for Brexit, and a group of only 22 per cent, the Hard Remainers, who want to stop Brexit.
The lion’s share of the votes will be won by the two main parties, both committed to Brexit. Pro-European politicians in the UK, including Tony Blair, still hope that people will have second thoughts when the hard reality of Brexit bites. But if that happens, it will probably be too late. One message from the election is that many voters have already “moved on” from the referendum. Although we are none the wiser about what form Brexit will take, there is no turning back now.