Friday, 9 June 2017

What does the election result mean for Brexit? Some initial thoughts

From my first post on this ‘Brexit election’ I have observed that the outcome was not necessarily going to be that which was initially expected, and so it has proved. Today, we face a complex and highly unpredictable situation and in this post I will give what inevitably are just initial thoughts.

Overall, although the result most certainly does not spell the end of Brexit, it does represent a slim window of possibility for that to come about and a rather wider window of possibility for Brexit to be shaped in a softer (i.e. single market) form than that which May had proposed. At the very least, there has been no ringing endorsement of her Brexit approach, and the chaotic situation now unfolding opens up a space for different possibilities which a clear Tory majority would not have done. This has the additional and important implication that it is going to much harder for Brexit politicians and newspapers to sustain charges of sabotage and disloyalty against remainers.

The outcome shows the gross irresponsibility and arrogance of the government having chosen to trigger Article 50 and then have an election. This in any event was going to mean time wasted from the already short two year negotiating period. Now, it may be many months before the UK has a fully functioning government with an agreed position on what form of Brexit it is seeking. Whatever happens now, a second general election later this year seems very probable.

Logically, the UK should seek to pause the two-year clock, but there is no mechanism to do so, although the EU could by unanimous (including British) agreement extend the two- year period. The more time that is wasted the closer we get to a situation where membership lapses with no agreement in place, causing massive dislocation to every aspect of daily life. Astonishingly, the initial noises from the Tories are of the need to prevent the EU delaying the process. Perhaps a greater degree of realism will emerge, but the record of Brexiters is hardly one to encourage this hope. The only other mechanism for a pause would be for Britain to rescind its notification, but at the moment there is no sign either party would do that and, in any case, it is not clear to me that the EU would accept it if it were understood as only temporary (all of the legal meanings around A50 processes are rather untested and unclear, but that it my understanding).

The most likely current scenario is some form of deal, or even coalition, between the Tories and the DUP. Whether such a deal is sustainable, or even possible, remains to be seen. But if it happens the DUP attitude to Brexit will be crucial. Whilst they are strongly pro-Brexit, the months since the referendum have made it very clear what hard Brexit would mean for the Northern Ireland border, peace process, and economy. It may therefore be possible that DUP involvement leads to a soft Brexit position (on both single market and customs union) as this is the only realistic way of avoiding a hard border.

Against this, such a deal or coalition would only yield a very slender majority which will inevitably strengthen the hand of the ultra-brexiters within the Tory party. The one hope for remainers when a large Tory majority looked likely was that it would sideline the ultras. The result will empower them. Yet the same also goes for Tory remainers, and whilst these have been spineless to date the new landscape of a much weakened Theresa May could change that. Similarly, the pro-remain House of Lords might be more willing to assert itself against a weak government with little mandate for hard Brexit. In a sense, although the election does not in any way over turn the referendum result it does mean that the referendum ceases to be the all-defining, overhanging fact of political debate. It is that more than anything that creates new spaces of hope for avoiding or softening Brexit.

The idea that Labour will form a minority administration seems highly unlikely to me, but if it happens then the crucial issue will be for the party to get much clearer about its Brexit policy. At the moment, the manifesto is quite vague and although it suggests a hard Brexit there are different views within the party, its membership and its voters, and there is perhaps room for something softer than the Tories were planning to pursue. A more likely scenario is that of a second election and for that Labour need to move explicitly to a soft Brexit if they are to have a mandate for such an approach. But since in any variant Brexit is going to be a disaster, it might be argued that it is better for Labour to be out of power and for the Tories to be forced to tidy up their own mess.

For a mess is what it is, and this goes back way before this election to the whole series of events that led to the referendum being held at all, to the failure of remain to win it, to Cameron’s immediate resignation and the hurried, panicky anointment of Theresa May as leader. It is a deep irony that in the 2015 election the Tories warned of the chaos that would happen if they lost, and yet since then have unleashed a chaos unparalleled in modern British political history. It very much remains to be seen how this will play out and, today especially, only the most provisional of thoughts are possible.

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