The Prime Minister stands triumphant in the House of Commons, a majority larger than Margaret Thatcher’s stacked up behind her. The opposition benches are noticeably emptier. Over half of Labour MPs lost their seats in the Tory tsunami. The SNP collapsed as Scotland’s electoral map turned blue for the first time in decades. You can count the surviving Lib Dems on one hand. With the Prime Minister still remarkably popular, the government can finally claim a mandate for the hard Brexit endorsed by the public in June’s snap election.
Yeah, that didn’t happen. Things did not go to plan. A year ago, the government stood ready to launch itself into the Brexit talks, headed by a Prime Minister regarded by most as a capable and safe pair of hands. A year on, the government’s is focused on its very survival, with Theresa May’s credibility as absent as the majority she once presided over. You may remember an article I wrote back in May, outlining what to expect from the Brexit process. The general election result has thrown many of those points out of the window and complicated even more. There is a lot to pack into the next eighteen months.
‘if you want our trade, you’ll have to pay’
The Brexit talks have stalled. As Nick Robinson succinctly put it, the impasse can be simplified to a clash between the EU position of ‘if you want our trade, you’ll have to pay’ and that of the UK, which can be boiled down to ‘if you want our money, you’ll have to talk trade.’ There is an acceptance on both sides that the UK will have to pay a ‘divorce bill’, an amount intended to settle the UK’s financial obligations to the EU. The impasse exists because the UK is keen to move beyond this and talk about trade, and the EU is refusing to budge until the bill is settled. Rumour has it that the EU is demanding €100bn, with the British government hoping to reduce that to approximately €20-30bn. Theresa May has reportedly agreed to pay a sum of approximately €45bn, an amount that whilst far beneath EU demands will still prove controversial with hard-line Eurosceptics on the Tory backbenches.
This last point is especially important in light of the election. Far from having received a landslide endorsement from voters, Theresa May’s government now soldiers on without a majority, while facing a hostile House of Commons. It is at this point necessary to explain the types of Brexit, and why a hung parliament severely complicates matters for the Prime Minister.
Hard Brexit: an immediate end to British membership of the single market, the customs union, and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights
First on the list is a ‘hard Brexit’, the arrangement preferred by the Prime Minister and the official position of the British government. This option would result in the UK leaving the EU at the end of March 2019, with an immediate end to British membership of the single market, the customs union, and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. This would satisfy the Leave campaign mantra of ‘Take Back Control’, but potentially do harm to an economy used to decades of EU free trade. Had the Conservatives been re-elected with a landslide, the government would have been free to ignore the naysayers and push through such a deal with little difficulty. The lack of a landslide complicates matters. Government rebels mean that there is no clear majority for a ‘hard Brexit’ after the election. The government, at the time of writing, is pushing on regardless.
Soft Brexit: an extended transition of up to four years where membership of the single market and customs union is maintained
Next up comes ‘soft Brexit’, an optimistically-titled alternative that would still result in Britain withdrawing from the EU in 2019, but with an extended transition of up to four years where membership of the single market and customs union is maintained. This would provide more time to prepare for a full British withdrawal, leaving the option open for single market membership to be continued indefinitely. This has been labelled a jobs-first Brexit, as it prioritises the economy over immigration control, and has won the support of the Labour Party and several government rebels. There are perhaps a dozen Tory MPs willing to vote against a ‘hard Brexit’ in order to ease the transition. With little chance of Britain remaining in the EU, this proposal remains the most acceptable face of Brexit with both politicians and the public. MPs are due to vote on a key piece of legislation, nicknamed the Great Repeal Bill, in the coming weeks. The scale of rebellion from Tory backbenchers, particularly by backing amendments endorsing a ‘soft Brexit’, will be an interesting sign of whether the government is going to have to abandon its current strategy and embrace consensus.
The differences in Brexit mean a lot more now. May promised to put the final deal to a vote in the House of Commons, daring MPs to either support her or send Britain off a cliff with no deal. Lacking a majority and in the knowledge that pro-EU government MPs are likely to rebel, the possibility of the deal being rejected must have crossed the Prime Minister’s mind. It might seem easier with the support of the DUP, officials of which have endorsed the government’s position on Brexit. Not so fast.
A necessary, if unpopular, consequence of Brexit must be the establishment of some form of a border.
In my last article, I briefly touched on the issue of the Irish border as being extremely complicated, due to a history of violence and sectarian tension. One area of consensus, however, is that the ability to travel freely between Northern Ireland and the Republic is a good thing, and should be maintained. This policy, the Common Travel Area, was drawn up in part to prevent border posts becoming targets for attacks during the Troubles and enshrined as part of the Good Friday Agreement. A necessary, if unpopular, consequence of Brexit must be the establishment of some form of a border. With no amendment to the invisible Irish border, European migrants could simply travel to the Republic and enter the UK without immigration checks, rendering the supposed ability to ‘take back control of our borders’ invalid. One proposal from the Irish government has been to install customs checks at ports and airports, controversially forcing Northern Irish citizens to produce passports to travel within their own country. The principle of an invisible border is key to virtually all parties in Northern Ireland, including the DUP. The same DUP who are now propping up the government. The same DUP who could turn everything upside down if the Irish border is deemed too integral an issue to compromise on. With the government refusing to acknowledge the political realities of a post-Brexit Irish border, this is an issue that could prove extremely troubling in the months ahead.
The negotiations have been underway for six months. What has proved remarkable – embarrassing might be a better word – is the apparent inability of the British delegation to compromise. It is time to face reality. The sun will still come up after Brexit, but there is no point playing up to the insistence that the EU needs us more than we need them. What the snail’s pace of negotiations have proved is that the time for fantasy and crowd-pleasing rhetoric is over. The time for hard graft and compromise has arrived, and there is no point pretending otherwise. A common refrain has been that other issues, particularly immigration, matter more than the economy. While there is some legitimacy to this claim, we cannot allow the roof to fall in simply so we have control over who comes into the house. Voters had the opportunity in June’s election to endorse the Prime Minister’s platform. They had the opportunity to give her the mandate to push through a ‘hard Brexit.’ They did not give her this. Parliament stands opposed to such an arrangement, and the spectre of MPs rejecting the deal outright hangs over the negotiations.
By thrusting the country into an unnecessary election, May nearly lost power, dynamited her own authority and hobbled the British delegation’s ability to negotiate freely.
The Prime Minister insisted prior to calling the election that what Britain needed most was stability, and for a year this was what she provided. By thrusting the country into an unnecessary election, however, May nearly lost power, dynamited her own authority and hobbled the British delegation’s ability to negotiate freely. One eye must always now be on the floor of the House of Commons, as any wrong move could thrust the government into an election they’d be on track to lose. With the Prime Minister’s credibility in tatters just a year after taking office, with her government reliant on a group of Northern Irish MPs that are almost certainly going to take offence at aspects of the deal, with her own Cabinet circling like vultures in preparation for a leadership bloodbath, the government is heading into the most testing period since the Second World War.
This is not a time to savage the reputation of any one individual at the detriment of the national interest. If the Prime Minister finds that her shot authority or ramshackle government is an impediment to negotiations, she should get out of the way.