The parallels between the European referendum of 2016 and the General Election of 2017 are striking.
Both were risky and avoidable events, called into being exclusively by the perceived political advantage of the Conservative Party. They were both carried out with complacent incompetence by the Prime Ministers of the day and led to precisely the opposite outcomes to those desired by Mr. Cameron and Mrs. May. Mr. Cameron’s foolishness paved the way for the potential national catastrophe of Brexit and cost him his Premiership. Mrs. May is not expected to remain long as Prime Minister after the electoral humiliation of 8th June. It is however too early to calculate with precision all the consequences of a minority Conservative government in a hung Parliament. Those who now see a possibility of “softening” or even preventing entirely the looming disaster of Brexit may be premature in their optimism. A yet more disorderly and damaging Brexit is a distinct possibility emerging from the election of 8th June.
There was frequent criticism of Mrs. May during the General Election campaign for her refusal, having called an election to enhance her mandate for the Brexit negotiations, to speak during the campaign in any serious way about these negotiations. This criticism is naïve. A central reason why Mrs. May provoked this early election was that she wished to secure a new electoral mandate before the vague but reassuring rhetoric of “getting a good deal” in the Brexit negotiations and “making a success of Brexit” could be put to the test of genuine negotiations with the well-prepared and self-confident Michel Barnier. The further Mrs. May’s government progresses into these negotiations, the clearer it will become that there are for the United Kingdom no easy or attractive alternatives to membership of the EU. It has been the central purpose of all Prime Ministerial rhetoric over the past year to conceal this unpleasant circumstance from the British public. Vagueness, wishful thinking and ambiguity have served the Brexit cause well over the past year. It would have been asking a lot of Mrs. May to abandon them when she had an election to fight.
In truth, Mrs. May and her government do not seem to have advanced any further than the childish fantasy first enunciated (appropriately) by Boris Johnson during the referendum campaign that in leaving the European Union the United Kingdom could “have its cake and eat it.” This motto was the opposite of the truth, since the UK’s ability to have its European cake and eat it was precisely dependent upon remaining in the European Union. But the abiding attraction of the fantasy can still be felt in the repeated aspiration of Mrs. May for the United Kingdom to enjoy with the European Union a “deep and special relationship” after Brexit, a relationship which supposedly would compensate for British withdrawal from both the European single market and the Customs Union. In so far as this unrealistic hope can be regarded as a negotiating strategy, it is not one that will long survive contact with negotiating reality later this month. Mrs. May’s minority government will continue to face the fundamental choice that until now it has always ducked, that between economically rational minimal change in the UK’s present relationship with the European Union and economically irrational but politically attractive maximal change. Minimal change, such as an application by the UK to join the European Economic Area, will provoke the reasonable objection that it is simply a clearly inferior version of the present situation. Maximal change by contrast, such as leaving the EU without any agreed structure for future economic relations, will please Mrs. May’s party, but will risk incalculable economic damage to an increasingly fragile British economy.
This unenviable, but self-imposed choice has not been rendered any easier by the negotiating tactics which the United Kingdom’s European negotiating partners have chosen, in particular the phasing of the Brexit negotiations. The UK’s European partners have said they will not discuss future trade relations between the EU and the UK until “satisfactory progress” has been made on the issues of financial settlement, rights of EU citizens and trade within the island of Ireland. All these are politically and technically very difficult issues for the United Kingdom. Financial discussions within the EU, often involving only relatively small sums of money, are notoriously fractious and the Eurosceptic press will pillory any British government willing to entertain a financial settlement for Brexit acceptable to the UK’s partners. The future rights of EU citizens in the UK and British citizens elsewhere in the EU are a topic inseparable from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, an issue at the centre of all populist debate in the referendum campaign about “resuming control.” It is difficult to see how continuing free trade within the island of Ireland can be guaranteed if the UK does not remain in the European Customs Union, a possibility Mrs. May has already excluded. Both individually and globally, these three preliminary issues represent a fearsome diplomatic and political challenge to the British government. There must be in consequence a real possibility that the Brexit negotiations will never progress beyond their first, initial stages. Even had Mrs. May obtained the enhanced majority she sought, such a stalemate was already widely seen in Brussels and London as eminently possible. Mrs. May’s current political weakness can hardly make less likely a rapid breakdown of the Brexit negotiations in their first phase.
It was stressed at the beginning of this blog that the internal politics of the Conservative Party have always played a decisive and baleful role in the Brexit saga. There is no reason to suppose that it will be otherwise over the coming months. What was originally a small, even eccentric minority of radical Eurosceptics in the Party has now become its dominant political force, buoyed and sustained by their unexpected success in the European referendum last year. They have no intention of allowing the European policy of the Conservative government to recede from their cherished central principle of resumed British sovereignty, a principle they see as triumphantly reaffirmed by their victory on 23rd June last year. Mrs. May has a vanishingly small room for manoeuvre between the demands of many, perhaps now a majority of her Parliamentary party that “Brexit should mean Brexit” and the insistence of her European partners that a price must be paid for “Brexit meaning Brexit.” The more Brexit means Brexit, the heavier this price will be.
In essence, little has changed through this recent General Election for any British government struggling to make sense of the intrinsically senseless Brexit proposition. When the negotiations begin on 19th June, the Prime Minister will have the option of attempting to avoid stalemate by signalling a willingness to make substantial concessions to her European negotiating partners. This would however lead inevitably to a confrontation with the dominant Eurosceptic wing of her party, a risky undertaking at the best of times, and potentially suicidal given the Prime Minister’s current political weakness. If Mrs. May was unwilling or unable to run a similar risk in the last Parliament, it is difficult to see how she might be willing and able to do so in this one. It is much more likely that she will find herself forced by her Eurosceptic ministerial colleagues and backbenchers to adopt an intransigent approach, attributing the stalemate in the Brexit negotiations to the unrealistic demands of her continental colleagues. Such a narrative from her mouth might well carry little credibility with the British electorate as a whole. It will however be attractive to much of her party and its supporters in the Eurosceptic press.
As the Article 50 negotiations begin, the scene is therefore set for the sharpening of all the dilemmas for any British government, particularly a Conservative government, in attempting to take the UK out of the European Union. As presently constituted, the Conservative Party will never allow Mrs. May or any other Conservative Prime Minister to make the sort of concessions necessary even to arrive at the second phase of the Brexit negotiations. If and when this second phase begins, the Prime Minister of the day will then be confronted by another set of unpalatable choices, rational decisions on which the radical Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party will make at least difficult and probably impossible.
It is true that there still exists within the Conservative Parliamentary party a sizable body of opinion favourable to continuing British membership of the single European market. Indeed, for many such MPs remaining in the single market is simply a first step towards undermining the whole idea of Brexit, which they continue to find absurd. But this body of Conservative opinion has for many years been spectacularly ineffectual in its attempts to make its voice heard within the Party. A hung Parliament will give a renewed opportunity to MPs such as Ken Clarke, Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve to mimic the tactics of their radical Eurosceptic colleagues twenty years ago and constitute a dissident and disruptive fronde within the Parliamentary Conservative Party. It is an open question whether they will grasp this opportunity. The habit of inaction is not one easy to reverse.
Until now, Mrs. May’s government has been able, by a mixture of cajolery and bullying, to dampen down the mounting alarm of British industry and the City at the prospect of a damaging “hard” Brexit involving withdrawal from the single market and withdrawal from the Customs Union. The likely stalemate in the Brexit negotiations this summer could well provide the occasion for this dam of relative silence to burst, with leading economic and financial figures giving public vent to their frustration at the recklessness with which the United Kingdom is being steered by this government towards the cliff edge of an unnegotiated Brexit. If personalities from business and the City, traditionally sympathetic to the Conservative Party, call into fundamental question the European policy of Mrs. May (or her successor) then that will undoubtedly make it easier for pro-remain MPs, masquerading as simple advocates of a “soft Brexit,” to make their case within the Parliamentary party. There will be some at least within the Parliamentary party willing to heed the warnings of industry and the City that in envisaging “no deal” with the European Union the Conservative government is playing with fire. The circumstances of a hung Parliament will give them considerable leverage if they are willing to put the national interest before the interests of their party in government. The recent record of the Conservative Party, particularly as far as the European issue is concerned, is not however encouraging in this regard. For the past twenty years dozens of Conservative MPs have acquiesced in what they knew to be irrational and damaging European policies by successive Conservative governments, an acquiescence which led inevitably to a referendum which was doomed to be lost.
These Conservative MPs and their successors will need to show over the coming months an unwonted degree of courage and determination to prevent the most chaotic and damaging of Brexits under Mrs. May or any among her likely Conservative successors. It is to be hoped that at this late stage they will finally do the right thing, having exhausted all the alternatives.