Will the UK election alter the trajectory of Brexit?

The Dahrendorf Forum’s new Co-Director Iain Begg discusses the snap election called by Theresa May for 8 June and its likely consequences for the negotiations on the UK’s departure from the EU.

“To win the people, always cook them some savoury that pleases them” – Aristophanes in Knights

When Theresa May announced that she was calling a snap election, having previously said repeatedly that she would allow the current Parliament to run its course, she defended her ‘u-turn’ by saying “I have concluded that the only way to guarantee certainty and stability for the years ahead is to hold this election and seek your support for the decisions I must take”. There is evident hubris in the last part of this statement.

Referring to the way in which Parliament had acted in recent months, she claimed it “jeopardises the work we must do to prepare for Brexit at home and it weakens the government’s negotiating position in Europe”. Cynics might, nevertheless, note the huge and growing lead (as signalled in a widely publicised poll, published days before her announcement) the Conservative Party enjoyed over the increasingly hapless Labour Party.

There has been much speculation about how the election will affect the Brexit negotiations. One strand of thinking is that, because the incoming Parliament (if, this time, it is allowed to run for the full five years written into the Fixed Parliament Act) will last until 2022, it will be sufficiently beyond the date of Brexit negotiations for the next election not to affect the government’s tactics. Having an election in the spring of 2020, as originally expected, could have put undue pressure on the British side to achieve a deal rapidly, possibly undermining its position.

Another view is that the UK general election will give the incoming government a mandate to negotiate and, potentially, to make compromises in particularly sensitive areas, rather than having to appear to be unremittingly tough. Conversely, some believe a strong mandate could be used by the British side to justify greater intransigence, by referring to the will of the British people. For the EU side, a cause for concern, following the long wait for Article 50 to be triggered, is the further delay a six week election period will bring.

As the campaign has progressed, three things have become apparent. First, the general assumption is that there is only one credible outcome: a victory for the Conservative Party, with the only uncertainty being how big a majority it will secure. Old hands among the psephologists, such as John Curtice of the University of Strathclyde, have drawn attention to the large majorities of many sitting Labour members of Parliament, suggesting projections of a landslide for the Conservative Party may be exaggerated: as he put it[1], these large majorities “could render them invulnerable, even in the event of a disastrous performance nationwide”. Even so, unless the polls are catastrophically wrong, or something wholly unexpected occurs in the remaining three weeks of the campaign, Theresa May need not book a removals’ van.

Second, the smaller UK parties seem unlikely to fare well. The UK Independence Party, with its core objective of leaving the EU achieved, has little else to offer voters and is seeing much of its support ebb away, mainly to the Conservative Party. Despite portraying itself as the only UK party to offer an alternative vision of how Brexit should take place, there is little evidence of a surge in support for the traditional third party, the Liberal Democrats, from the 48% of voters who opted for ‘remain’ in the 2016 referendum. With just nine MPs in the outgoing Parliament, the cutting joke at the party’s expense was that you could fit all their MPs into a single people carrier taxi. They will gain some seats, but as things stand, may only need to upgrade to a mini-bus after the election. With the Labour Party struggling to arrive at a coherent message on Brexit, the Scottish Nationalist Party is, therefore, likely again to have the largest bloc of MPs putting forward a viable alternative to the government’s stance on Brexit.

Third, despite being presented as an election to determine who can secure the best Brexit deal for Britain (and it should be emphasised that no party is campaigning on reversing Brexit), other standard themes invariably come to the fore in the UK, especially the economy and the National Health Service (NHS). The Conservative Party has, unsurprisingly, sought to contrast the strong leadership credentials of Theresa May with the weak and indecisive leadership of the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn. Indeed, in a foretaste of an expression she now repeats at every opportunity, seeking to emulate the success of the slogan “take back control” so influential in the EU referendum, Theresa May stressed when announcing the election “the strong and stable [emphasis added] leadership the country needs to see us through Brexit and beyond”.

Despite the rhetoric around it, the UK general election is unlikely to be transformative in how the Brexit negotiations unfold. It will help to clarify what the real position of the UK will be on some of the potentially awkward dossiers the EU side wants to resolve relatively quickly, such as the rights of each others’ citizens or the political acceptability in the UK of a sizeable ‘divorce bill’. But it will not resolve some of the medium and longer term dimensions of the future relationship, not least because elections elsewhere will be crucial. Nor will it obviate the far from negligible risk of a hostile Brexit from which both sides lose.

As Joseph Schumpeter put it: “Politicians are like bad horsemen who are so preoccupied with staying in the saddle that they can’t bother about where they’re going”

[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/04/18/tories-can-win-100-seat-majority-analysis-poll-polls-suggests/

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School of Governance and London School of Economics and Political Science or its funder Stiftung Mercator.