The UK and Europe

Theresa May's not so audacious gamble

Andrew Grice / Apr 2017

Photo: Shutterstock

Anyone who doubted that Theresa May was a skilful political operator should eat their words after her surprise decision to call a snap general election on 8 June. With one bound, she hoped to be  free from three potential threats: that Parliament would reject the Brexit deal she negotiates with the EU27; that, with a small Commons majority, she would be held hostage by either the Conservative Party’s pro or anti-European wings and that the EU would exploit her domestic weakness ahead of the scheduled 2020 election. For good measure, May chose a time to win her own mandate when the Labour Opposition is at a nadir in the opinion polls and deeply split over the issue that will dominate the election – Brexit.

The Prime Minister probably exaggerated the threat posed by Parliament to an EU deal. But not by as much as claimed by the critics who accuse her of staging an opportunist, unnecessary election before Labour came to its senses and ditched its ineffective leader Jeremy Corbyn. Pro-European Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative MPs and peers felt unable to stop the Bill allowing May to trigger the Article 50 negotiations – for fear of accusations they were overturning last year’s referendum. But they were already discussing how to dilute the hard Brexit she seeks outside the single market and customs union.

Remarkably, May managed to keep both the Europhiles and Europhobes in her own party happy. The pro-EU wing interpreted the election as a signal she will stand up to the hardliners and negotiate a softer Brexit, making concessions on the UK’s divorce bill and continuing free movement and a role for the European Court of Justice during any transitional period.

However, hardline Brexiteers believe the Conservative manifesto will “lock in” the clean Brexit they want, and force pro-EU Tory MPs to sign up to it.  They think the Europhile Tories will be less likely to rebel over Brexit after May has won a mandate. The majority for soft Brexit in the current Parliament will likely be dissolved along with it. Most importantly, the House of Lords would not reject a hard Brexit deal because, under the Salisbury Convention dating back to 1945, peers do not obstruct legislation included in a winning party’s election manifesto.

Both Tory factions can’t be right. Probably they are both wrong, and the true picture lies somewhere in between. We may end up with a slightly softer version of the hard Brexit May has set out. But it will now be whatever version of Brexit the Prime Minister is content with.
The election makes it less likely that there will be a “cliff edge” Brexit -- the UK leaving the EU without an exit deal in March 2019. May’s Article 50 letter to Donald Tusk showed that she wants a deal; the election gives her more flexibility to achieve one. It makes a transitional deal, probably lasting until the next scheduled UK election in 2022, more likely, which should limit the disruption for both the EU and UK and allow more time to agree a long-term trade deal.

One of the Tories’ key campaign messages is asking voters to give May a bigger majority to strengthen her hand in the EU negotiations. The EU27 would probably respect her enhanced mandate. The absence of a 2020 UK election makes the ticking clock less of a weapon for Brussels. But this election would not necessarily make the complex negotiations any easier for May. Claiming a mandate for hard Brexit would not win friends among the EU27, or force them to make concessions. She might change the political weather at home, but on the Continent it will remain the same.

May has certainly outflanked her domestic opponents. Labour enters the election facing an existential crisis, with the Tories targeting its Leave voters and the resurgent Liberal Democrats wooing its Remain supporters.

Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit Secretary, said that Labour “does not accept that Brexit means whatever Theresa May says it means.” But the UK looks set to give her the chance to make Brexit mean just that.

Andrew Grice

Andrew Grice

April 2017

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