A Defeated UK Leadership Clouds the Brexit Outlook

June 9, 2017 5:00 PM
Photo Credit: 
REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

The surprise rejection of UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party by British voters reveals the great difficulties in achieving a national consensus on almost any major policy issue facing the United Kingdom (UK), not least the imminent negotiations on Brexit with the rest of the European Union (EU). As a result, Britain enters into the Brexit negotiations with the weakest possible hand, a fact not likely to be lost on the politically strong leaders of France and Germany.

Despite May’s declared intention to continue in office, the perception that the loss resulted from her personalized, scripted, and negative campaign means that she is unlikely to last as party leader and prime minister. She may hang on to power for a while because of the lack of obvious alternatives, fear of another divisive leadership fight within the party, and the fear of a hostile public reaction to another election later this year.

The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) was another election loser, forfeiting 21 of its 56 seats in Scotland. This setback appears to have reflected a public opposition to the SNP’s threat of another quick referendum on Scottish independence in the wake of Brexit. The short-term risk of Scotland breaking away from Britain has thus diminished.

The success of Jeremy Corbyn in growing the Labour Party’s parliamentary representation and securing over 40 percent of the public vote means that his leadership of the party is now unquestioned and that it will continue his generally leftist trajectory. The centrism of the “New Labour” Prime Minister Tony Blair era is long gone. Corbyn proved a seasoned campaigner and in the Labour Party Manifesto provided a policy platform that won backing from many, not least the young people who have borne the largest share of economic hardship since the beginning of the global financial crisis. Labour thus has little to fear from another new election—which is why the Conservatives will want to avoid one.

May’s reaching out to the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) as partners and kingmakers in London means that her ability to govern and pass legislation rests with a party opposed to important parts of her fiscal austerity plans, which had included reductions in promised increases in old age pensions. The DUP supported Brexit and generally wants to maintain as close a relationship for Northern Ireland as possible. Yet it also wishes the land border with the Irish Republic to be seamless and frictionless. This stance rules out any imposition of controls between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK as part of Brexit. It also implies that the DUP might be willing to remain in the European Customs Union or even the internal market as part of a Brexit agreement. The DUP is vehemently opposed to Corbyn, remembering well his friendliness toward the Irish Republican Army in its most notorious days. The party is therefore likely to join the Tories in opposing anything that lead to Corbyn becoming Prime Minister, including any early elections Labour might win. The DUP-Conservative alliance may therefore be more solid than many assume, and provided London keeps supporting the Northern Irish economy, the DUP is not likely to push May into making any really tough decisions. The notion that the DUP would for instance push through a softer Brexit seem far-fetched.

But the DUP-Conservative partnership also kills the UK government’s neutrality over Northern Ireland’s internal politics, ruling out a new regional coalition government between the DUP and Sinn Fein, as the DUP reconciles itself to direct rule from London. The longer-term effects on Northern Irish peace from this new situation are difficult to predict, but do not appear constructive.

The election makes the path toward Brexit more uncertain than ever. Ironically, the entire Brexit issue played a negligible role in the campaign. But because the United Kingdom Independence Party, the leading Brexit advocate, lost more seats than expected, it is suddenly revealed to be a spent force in British politics. Noticeably, however, its collapse seems to have benefitted Labour as much as the Tories, implying that the electoral returns from May’s hard Brexit strategy have been very limited. The electoral failure of the avidly pro-EU Liberal Democrats further highlights the lack of political potency of the Brexit debate. The polling revealed no desire among the British public to return to this issue. The Brexit decision is settled. The UK is leaving.

But the UK faces a fork in the road. May and the Conservatives may interpret the election outcome as a rejection of their hard Brexit strategy and moderate their expectations accordingly, seeking to retain the UK’s membership in the EU customs union and even the internal market while seeking only cosmetic changes to EU immigration rules. The DUP would likely welcome such a shift. Hardline Brexiteers in the Conservative Party might not. Were these factors after a Conservative Party soul-searching about the election result to produce a softer Brexit, it would be a big positive for the UK and Europe.

But May could also opt to continue a hard Brexit, counting on Conservative MPs to stick with her to avoid another destabilizing policy U-turn and debilitating leadership fight. Weakened as she is, May might attempt to escalate her efforts to blame the EU-27 for likely deteriorating UK economy. The short-term risks of a hardline are now diminished by the stronger DUP in Northern Ireland and the Scottish Nationalists being defanged.

Tragically, the EU-27 might go along with May’s hard Brexit path entailing a cleaner break with the UK, hoping to prove its point that the UK is going down a disastrous political and economic path that other EU members should avoid. In this scenario, it seems unlikely that May could accept the EU’s demands for a financial settlement, or the admittedly expansionist demands concerning perpetual protection of EU citizens’ rights in the UK by the European Court of Justice.

If the Conservative Party after this election result decides to double down on its Brexit strategy to remain in power, the risk of collapse in UK-EU negotiations is greater than ever.