The disappointing result for the Conservative Party in the UK’s recent general election, which saw it lose its working majority in the House of Commons, is certainly the biggest setback for Brexit since the referendum a year ago, but should not be mistaken for the end of Brexit, as some commentators have suggested. ProEU supporters are reinvigorated while those in charge of Brexit have, to say the least, experienced a bump in the road.
While the remarkably low expectations placed upon Jeremy Corbyn before the campaign have led to the election result being celebrated as a success by many of his supporters, the fact remains that he is further behind Theresa May in terms of Parliamentary seats than Gordon Brown when the former Labour Prime Minister was defeated by David Cameron in 2010.
A victory for “soft” Brexit?
Opponents of Brexit have been quick to claim the result as a mandate for the UK to stay in the EU single market and customs union, despite the fact that around 85% of the electorate voted for parties with manifestos which backed leaving the single market and customs union, including the Conservatives, Labour, UKIP and the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Conversely, only around 12% voted for parties calling for Britain to remain in the single market, including the Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party (SNP) and Greens, who all saw their vote share fall.
Nonetheless, numerous pro-EU politicians are attempting to capitalise on the Government’s weakness and reopen the debate over whether Britain leaves the single market or not. Any semblance of unity within Labour on the issue has fallen apart, with Leader Jeremy Corbyn and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell confirming that Brexit did mean leaving the single market, only to be contradicted by Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer the very next day.
Meanwhile, the Conservative Party, which has traditionally been beset by infighting over the European Union, appeared to be united on the European policy for the first time in over a generation in the aftermath of the referendum and Theresa May taking power. That truce is now being challenged, with some senior figures pushing for a “softer” Brexit, the precise details of which are unclear.
In terms of the manifestos which they actually fought the election on, Labour and the Conservatives had almost indistinguishable positions on Brexit, with their manifesto pledges on ending the free movement and repatriating control of trade policy ruling out membership of both the EU single market and the customs union.
What was different, however, was Labour’s tone towards Brexit. Labour’s approach may have been very similar in terms of policy, but the way it spoke about it was in much more conciliatory terms than the harder language used by some Conservatives. Now the politicking of the election is over, the Government has adopted a more conciliatory rhetoric towards the EU for the negotiations, readopting the language and tone from earlier in the year of the Lancaster House speech.
With the formal negotiations now underway, we will know soon enough if this is a permanent change in approach. Any schadenfreude from the European Union side over the result of the general election has quickly disappeared as the EU realises that it makes Brexit more, not less, difficult. And it could be said that the result is also a shot across the bows for some people on the Leave side too, whose sometimes antagonistic and goading language towards both Brussels and the defeated Remainers after the referendum has ultimately won them few friends.
Paradoxically, this comes at a time the UK and the EU both appeared to have reached a broad agreement on how to implement Brexit – a largely clean break from the EU institutions for the UK, with far-reaching bilateral agreements put in their place instead. Reopening discussion of attempting to “cherry-pick” aspects of the European single market while rejecting freedom of movement will only exasperate the EU side, which has repeatedly and explicitly ruled that prospect out.
The agreement with the DUP
The Conservatives are now facing a dramatically altered political landscape as they attempt to form a minority Government with support from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). While a formal “confidence and supply” agreement has yet to be finalised, the deal appears to be imminent, with the Conservatives having already set Wednesday as the date for the Queen’s Speech, in which they set out their legislative agenda for the following Parliament, which will almost certainly require DUP support to pass through the House of Commons.
This prospect is causing consternation amongst social liberals from across the political spectrum, concerned that the DUP will try to force through regressive changes on contentious issues such as gay marriage or abortion limits in return for support, although it should be noted that the DUP’s manifesto itself does not make a single mention of gay rights, abortion or religion, so it is hard to see this being an issue.
On the key issue of Brexit, the DUP and the Conservatives are very much aligned. The DUP dedicated an entire section of its refreshingly short manifesto to Brexit, outlining 30 key priorities and objectives. Amongst the key points are: “Jurisdiction of European Court of Justice ended and greater control over our laws restored”, “Comprehensive free trade and customs agreement with the European Union” and “Progress on new free trade deals with the rest of the world”.
These points alone make it clear that the DUP also favours a clean Brexit – out of the single market and customs union and with a comprehensive free trade deal with the EU in its place, something which Deputy Leader Nigel Dodds has since confirmed. Unsurprisingly, many of the manifesto demands also concern the need to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, including the “Maintenance of the Common Travel Area” and a “Frictionless border with the Irish Republic…”. Both the EU and all the major UK parties have already made clear that this is also one of their top priorities, so this does not change either side’s negotiating position on the issue, although the DUP’s involvement will likely draw it into even sharper relief.
Overall, the Conservatives should have little trouble securing support from the DUP over Brexit, and the DUP has already made clear that it backs Theresa May’s vision of a clean Brexit rather than the watered-down version being pushed by some recalcitrant Remainers, but it is not yet clear what other concessions the Conservatives may have to grant as part of any broader agreement.
Indeed, the political situation in Northern Ireland is uniquely complicated even before Brexit is thrown into the mix, and even the prospect of an informal alliance between the Conservatives and the DUP has provoked major consternation from Nationalist parties including Sinn Féin and the SDLP, who are claiming that Conservative support for the DUP would undermine the terms of the Good Friday Agreement which brought peace to Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister has rightly taken the approach of meeting directly with all of the Northern Irish parties in turn, and it is vital that the Government continues to accommodate and listen to people on all sides of Northern Irish politics to ensure that there is no reopening of dangerous old wounds.
What about Scotland?
While the election has raised uncertainty over the constitutional settlement in Northern Ireland, it has done quite the reverse in Scotland, with unexpected defeats for the Scottish National Party and dramatic gains for the Conservatives firmly putting to bed the question of a second independence referendum for Scotland, which SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon had formally called for earlier this year. The SNP has been coming under mounting criticism for focusing so heavily on independence while performing increasingly poorly on devolved issues, such as education, which it has had power over for a decade in the Scottish Parliament.
A significant factor in the reversal of the SNP’s fortunes has been the charisma of Ruth Davidson, which has propelled the Scottish Conservatives to their best results in Scotland for a generation. While this has helped to cement Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom, it does raise a certain degree of uncertainty around the Brexit process, with Davidson attempting to use her increased influence to push Theresa May closer to Philip Hammond’s vision of a watered-down Brexit.
The irony that the Conservatives have effectively been saved by a strong showing in Scotland, which has historically been a hotbed of opposition to the Tories, only serves to underline the unexpected and unusual position they are in.
Before the result of the election was known, the Prime Minister was widely expected to make major changes to her top team, including possibly sacking the Chancellor, and a number of other Cabinet ministers. In the event, the reshuffle was much less extensive than expected.
The one department which did, however, undergo significant changes was none other than the Department for Exiting the European Union. While Brexit Secretary David Davis retained the top post, his deputy and committed Brexiteer David Jones was unexpectedly fired without Davis himself supposedly being informed in advance, while the highly regarded Lord Bridges announced his resignation from the department.
A number of roles, both in the Brexit department and in the Foreign Office, were filled with distinctly more pro-Remain politicians than their predecessors, raising concerns amongst Brexit supporters that the Government was preparing to water down Brexit.
These fears were allayed though by the return to Government of one of the leaders of the Vote Leave campaign, Michael Gove, in the key area of agriculture, which will require major reform after Brexit. As significant was the appointment of Steve Baker, the “shop steward” for Leave-supporting backbench Conservative MPs, to the Brexit department itself, a move which provided much reassurance to Leavers that Brexit was still on track.
Going forward, it is inevitable that the Prime Minister will have to take a more conciliatory tone towards her political opponents at home, and her negotiating counterparts abroad in Brussels and elsewhere, even though she is right not to alter the fundamentals of her Brexit policy. Labour’s confusion about its own Brexit policy helps keep her in No.10, as a reinvigorated Corbyn once again has to come to terms with dealing with a party that still disagrees with him on a wide range of issues.
Hints of Theresa May’s new approach are already apparent. With the two sides having been set for a crunch point over the right of the European Court of Justice to adjudicate over EU citizens’ rights in the UK after Brexit, reports now suggest that the UK is bringing a “carrot” to the table in the form of offering to continue all rights presently granted to EU citizens in the UK – which are actually in excess of the rights enjoyed by UK nationals on issues like bringing non-EU spouses to the country – rather than the “stick” of threatening to walk away with no deal.
However, politics does not take place in a vacuum, and it is inevitable that business confidence will have taken a hit as a result of the political turmoil and the increased threat of a Corbyn-led Government which is openly hostile to business. The Government must now make it a higher priority to engage with businesses and reassure them about the Brexit process, and it must redouble efforts to sell its vision of a Global Britain, leading the world in free trade.