With our London Partner Newington we give you our take on the results of the UK elections, and what they mean for Brexit and Europe. In a nutshell: more uncertainty and delays ahead.
A hung Parliament
Shortly after last night’s exit poll, David Davis, UK Secretary for Exiting the EU, quickly sought to manage the read-out from the 2017 General Election. Theresa May did not need a landslide or even a strong majority to show voters had backed her approach to Brexit, he said – a majority (any majority) would give her the mandate she needed, he added.
That did not happen. Theresa May and the Conservatives are in a disastrous situation where the party has gone from being 20 points ahead in the polls to losing seats and facing a hung Parliament. Theresa May will now lead a minority government based on a confidence and supply arrangement with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The primary ask for the DUP will be to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, and to restore devolution in Stormont as quickly as possible.
MPs will meet on Tuesday next week to decide whether to re-elect the Speaker, which will be a formality, so the first test of the new Government will be on Monday 19 June, the date scheduled for the Queen’s Speech – and for the formal start of Brexit talks. The Government’s future legislative programme will now have to go through the slog of knife-edged votes at every legislative stage. In the run up to the summer recess, we may only see progress on a couple of minor legislative measures as the Conservatives and DUP hammer out the detail of what they are prepared to agree to.
Theresa May is severely weakened by these results. Having marched her party up the hill to the promised land of landslide majority, she has lost them their majority of 17. Senior figures in the Tory Parliamentary Party are calling for heads to roll and May’s core team, which includes Joint Chiefs of Staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hall, are first on the list as key architects behind the campaign. This was not an election that they planned for, nor initially agreed to, and they have lost 32 colleagues including six ministers along the way..
What is certain is that Mrs May cannot continue as before. In order to get her policies through, she will have to change her dictatorial style to become more collegiate and embrace full and frank consultation with the Conservative Parliamentary Party as well as the DUP. Now, Mrs May not only needs to keep the DUP onside, but also cannot allow even a small handful of four or five MPs to rebel. There will be some long nights ahead.
The immediate impact on Brexit could be three-fold.
First, it may affect timings. British negotiators had been due to sit down with officials in Brussels in just over a week’s time. The European Commission’s President, Jean-Claude Juncker, and its Chief Negotiator, Michel Barnier have already signalled that the EU is ready to negotiate but open to delaying the first round of talks to give the UK some time to decide exactly what it is that Britain wants to say (whilst saying nothing about the fact that we still have less than two years to arrange the exit).
Second, the impact on the UK’s negotiating position. Everyone knows the drill, ‘Brexit means Brexit’ but the intellectual vacancy of this concept has been thrown into even starker relief. Brexit to the Conservatives, under May, means quitting the EU single market, Customs Union and escaping the ECJ jurisdiction. Brexit to the DUP means a ‘positive’ relationship between the UK and the EU involving mutual access to markets in the pursuit of ‘common interests’. Brexit to the Labour Party means EU workers’ rights protected alongside tariff-free access to the Single Market. Brexit to the SNP means a ‘special status for Scotland’ which involves a second independence referendum, to take place before the UK leaves the EU. Brexit to the Lib Dems means another referendum on the terms of the final deal. So Brexit may well mean Brexit, but it is also very much open to interpretation – and with the need for consensus, a strong and solid UK position will struggle to emerge.
Third, politicians and officials sitting in Brussels and in European capitals may be scratching their heads at how the UK, seen as a bastion of strong and stable government has found itself in this position. Coming on the back of what has been one of the worst election campaigns by a sitting party, many could see this as an opportunity for the EU to seize – either through doubling the number of red lines or adding new requirements to the terms of reference for any deal.
No political force in the UK has proposed a full-fledged, let alone feasible, plan on how exactly to leave the EU – and now the country is stuck with a hung Parliament. That means less time for negotiations, the same scarcity of human resources, and more hurdles. The EU, on the other hand, seems to be ready for negotiations come 20 June, but its rigid guidelines and the tortuous procedures to change them constrain the flexibility and political acuity needed for the process.
Almost one year after the referendum and what we can expect from Brexit – as the clock keeps ticking – is more of the same: uncertainty.