Theresa May has a comical aversion to giving a straight answer. For a long time, her only public pronouncements on Brexit were slogans: ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and, when challenged on whether it would be a hard or soft Brexit, the particularly laughable ‘Red, White, and Blue Brexit’. In January, she gave the public its clearest look at her intentions for the Brexit deal. These were ‘as free as possible trade’, leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), and control over immigration from the EU. These negotiating principles suggested that her plan is for a hard Brexit.
There is no fixed definition for hard Brexit and soft Brexit. Generally speaking, a soft Brexit would be staying as close as possible to the EU, remaining a member of the single market and losing complete control over immigration, while a hard Brexit would be leaving the single market and customs union, falling back on to World Trading Organisation (WTO) rules on trade and tariffs until a free trade deal can be negotiated. While a soft Brexit would be the least economically damaging, it would barely fulfil the result of the referendum – it would be leaving in name only, with Britain simply giving up any say over the direction of the EU. Conversely, a hard Brexit under WTO rules would cost exporters up to £6 billion a year in tariffs. Given that Britain’s former EU ambassador Sir Ivan Rogers has warned that negotiating a trade deal with Europe could take up to ten years, this would be hugely damaging to the economy. The prospect of a transition period has been raised, where Britain retains its position in the EU while the trade deal is negotiated. While this would minimise economic shock, this would leave Britain under the jurisdiction of the ECJ and with no control over immigration from the EU until it has truly left. The Prime Minister and Chancellor have signalled support for a transition period, so it is likely that Britain’s departure will take several years longer than expected.
‘it is likely that Britain’s departure will take several years longer than expected’
The Prime Minister explicitly made the election into a Brexit election. A vote for any Conservative candidate, she said, was a vote to empower her going in to the negotiations. Do you trust me and my team, she asked, or Jeremy Corbyn and his to take us out of the EU? This approach backfired spectacularly. A 20-point lead at the beginning of the election turned to dust as the Conservative Party lost its majority. Labour gained 30 seats. Theresa May did not secure majority; implicitly, then, the country seems to have rejected her plan for Brexit.
‘A 20-point lead at the beginning of the election turned to dust as the Conservative Party lost its majority’
Of course, it’s more complex than that. It was not just a Brexit election. Jeremy Corbyn campaigned on conventional issues like austerity, wages, and tuition fees. The UKIP vote was expected to go entirely back to the Conservatives, but was split evenly between them and Labour. The Lib Dems were expecting a resurgence that failed to materialise. This resulted in both of the main parties getting huge shares of the vote, the Conservatives at 42.3% (up 5.5% from the last election) and Labour at 40.0% (up 9.6%). While May delivered two million more votes than David Cameron in 2015, and won more votes than Tony Blair ever did, it was not enough. In Britain, seats are what matter.
So this election, meant to give May the authority to negotiate our departure from the EU, has instead thrown everything up in the air. She was widely expected to replace Phillip Hammond, the pro-remain, pro-single market Chancellor in a Cabinet reshuffle after the election. She now lacks the ability to move him, and he has become empowered to argue against May’s principles for negotiating, hinting in a speech after the election that we will pursue a softer Brexit than previously thought. The Conservative star of the election, Ruth Davidson of the Scottish Conservatives, has signalled her support for staying in the single market, and has suggested that the Conservatives should consult with other parties as it negotiates Brexit. The lack of a majority will also embolden pro-single market backbenchers to speak out, aware that a hard Brexit platform has lost the party seats and that May’s authority has vanished.
It is obviously very difficult to make predictions on the final outcome of Britain’s exit from the EU. We can, though, use the results of the first day of negotiations as a suggestion of what’s to come. David Davis, Britain’s negotiator, has suggested that the ‘row of the summer’ will be about the timeline of the talks. Davis wanted to begin trade talks in tandem with divorce talks, while the EU said that the divorce must be negotiated first before talks on trade can begin. On the first day, Davis accepted the EU timeline for events. For all the election bravado of no deal being better than a bad deal, it is clear that Davis is willing to compromise to make the talks work. On the EU side, the negotiator Michel Barnier has said that he is not willing to make concessions, but is willing to strike a fair deal. There have also been suggestions that after the German election more positive offers will be made, with the UK able to stay a member of the single market while having control over immigration for five years. Ultimately, though, the EU will not want to give Britain a better deal outside the bloc than in it, because this would encourage others to leave. It is plausible, then, instead of a clean break in 2019, the final deal will be a compromise, taking place anywhere up to a decade from now. If anything is certain, it is that the election called to strengthen May’s negotiating hand has done the opposite, and we will now certainly have a softer Brexit than she previously intended.