Before the election
Theresa May was steering the UK towards a so-called “hard Brexit” – leaving the European Court of Justice, the Customs Union and Single Market, trying to agree a trade deal with the EU (though “no deal is better than a bad deal”, the Prime Minister said) and leaving the UK free to make trade deals with non-EU countries.
Yet even while striking this uncompromising, almost UKIP-like tone, Theresa May and her advisers were aware that compromises and trade-offs would be inevitable, as the UK is the smaller, arguably weaker partner in these negotiations with the European bloc. Knowing that some ultra-Brexiteer MPs in her own party could rebel over any compromise, the Prime Minister wanted to increase her majority in the Commons so that she could afford those minor rebellions. The calculation was that the electorate would reject Jeremy Corbyn’s hard-left Labour Party and give the Conservatives a super majority.
After the election
The Prime Minister is politically weakened and her party lacks a majority in the Commons. She is even more beholden to the views of the Euro-sceptics in her party, but now the pro-EU MPs such as Anna Soubry and Ken Clarke also have the power to scupper the government’s agenda, and the partnership with the DUP adds a new layer of complexity, not least because they have strong interests in the arrangements over the UK’s only land border with the EU – with the Republic of Ireland.
A “softer” Brexit?
Some commentators have suggested that the election result is partly explained by the so-called “revenge of the remainers” – that traditional Conservative-voting remain voters felt ignored by the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for a hard Brexit, and so either did not vote or indeed changed to support other parties. The commentators have argued that this means the Conservative-led government will take heed of this lesson from the electorate and soften its approach to Brexit – in effect agreeing for the UK to continue to be bound by EU regulations after the exit.
However, this argument has some flaws. First, Conservative remain voters did not switch to the pro-EU Liberal Democrats in any great numbers – in fact the LibDem vote share fell by half a percent to 7.4 percent (though through distribution changes they picked up 4 more seats). The soft Brexit-supporting Labour Party increased its share from 30 percent to 40 percent – an impressive one-third increase. Second, much analysis suggests that the Conservatives’ manifesto commitments were more of a factor – commitments on shifting the aged care burden from public funds to individuals did not much please the voters.
Furthermore, the debate on which kind of Brexit the government should pursue often ignores the point that the European negotiators will have at least as much influence as the UK side in determining the final arrangements. Arguably, the views and positions of Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron will be of far more import than those of UK MPs or voters in this process.
Early indications are that Macron intends to push hard to lure businesses – especially science companies and financial services – to relocate to France. And while the German government is generally viewed as more economically pragmatic rather than ideological over Brexit, the entire parliament including Chancellor Merkel faces elections this year, and there is little electoral benefit in Germany in seeming too generous to the UK. For the European Commission’s part, it has made several strong statements about making sure there is “a heavy cost” to a state exiting the EU, to deter other member states from leaving.
For these reasons, we assess that a “hard Brexit” remains the most likely outcome, although there may be some compromise that allows the UK to remain as some kind of associate partner of the Customs Union.
Political figures to engage post-election
The Cabinet remains almost unchanged – a sign that Ms May cannot afford to leave any influential MPs out of the government, in case they become a rallying figure for a leadership challenge after her poor election result. The same thinking motivated her to bring Michael Gove back in to Cabinet. These figures remain key to any Brexit-influencing strategy.
With a minority government, the Opposition and minority parties have much greater informal influence over all government affairs, including Brexit positions. Kier Starmer, Labour’s Brexit spokesperson, should most definitely be part of any Brexit discussion strategy. The DUP has influence over Ms May’s government and this is worth utilising – however their support base remains a very specific group: staunch union-supporting, overwhelmingly Protestant Northern Irish voters. Any engagement of the DUP would need to be framed in terms of the interests of that group in order to capture their attention.
The SNP is the third-largest bloc in Parliament and is crucial for engagement, for many of the reasons outlined above. Not only are SNP MPs important in this Parliament, but the Prime Minister is conscious that Scottish nationalism remains one of the most prominent existential threats to the United Kingdom as a political unit. While Ms May strongly opposes the independence movement, she has to tread carefully on issues relevant to Scotland, to avoid giving succour to the popularity of the idea of an independent Scotland.
Finally, non-traditional political actors will have renewed informal influence. This includes regional political figures such as the Mayors of London and Manchester, the First Minister of Scotland and the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davison. Civil servants, particularly the negotiators, and business groups such as UK Finance – the new financial services lobbying group launched in July 2017 – will be important too.
The field of influential figures has been considerably widened by the results of this general election. That provides a challenge for government, but a significant opportunity for those groups wishing to weigh in on the direction of Brexit policy-making.