After the problems the UK has caused the EU over the years, and the short term headache posed by the Brexit referendum last year, Theresa May ending up with a hung parliament having hoped for a huge win last week resulted in plenty of mirth in the rest of the European Union. Open your window and you can hear Brussels laughing said Rupert Myers, “Oops they did it again” joked Süddeutsche (cover image here), and cartoonists across the world had great fun. At the election party I organised in Berlin on election night we were toasting the result the Daily Mash had hoped for.
But all of this has to stop. And stop now. For the UK’s political crisis caused by this election is very serious and is not about to go away any time soon.
First, the Conservatives losing seats and needing to rely on some sort of arrangement with the DUP makes Theresa May’s job much more difficult. The Irish border issue in Brexit was already hard, now it is harder. The future of the Good Friday Agreement and power sharing in Northern Ireland is now open to question once again. John Major even cautioned May against an arrangement with the DUP. The Queen’s Speech to open Parliament is delayed while this is worked through. There is still the possibility that the deal with the DUP collapses before it has even started.
Secondly, the Tory party is more split than ever about what Brexit course to take. May’s majority is contingent on 13 Scottish Tories. Conservative leader in Scotland Ruth Davidson backed Remain last year and now advances what she calls ‘Open Brexit’ (essentially Soft Brexit for the rest of us). Meanwhile the Conservative Research Group of Brexiteer hardliners has not gone away and is still staunchly backing May’s Brexit line. Chancellor Philip Hammond – who May couldn’t sack – is arguing the UK needs to stay in the Customs Union.
Meanwhile the Conservative Party is closing ranks behind Theresa May for now as the party realises a leadership election, or a fresh general election, will deal the party a potentially fatal blow in its efforts to cling to power. The fight – as Jonathan Freedland accurately sets out – is between a group around Hammond and Soubry blaming Hard Brexit for the party’s poll woes, versus a Davis-Johnson bloc arguing that austerity is to blame. Expect no swift resolution of this spat.
Thirdly, the Labour Party’s EU position is still a horrible mess. Starmer has his 6 criteria for Brexit (that sound rather like a case for staying in the EU), while Labour’s manifesto argued for migration control that would necessitate a Brexit not too far from what the Conservatives are advocating. John McDonnell continues to argue the UK ought to leave the Single Market. Meanwhile Labour’s vote grew more strongly in Remain-voting areas than it did in Leave areas, and an estimated 64% of Labour voters backed Remain last year.
The essence of this is that there is no soft or hard Brexit position that has enough backing in either of the two major parties to mean they could bulldozer that position through Parliament. The only solution would be some sort of cross party consensus on the Brexit issue – something that Michael Gove has floated – but Labour is never going to buy that while Theresa May is Prime Minister, for Labour would sooner have a new General Election and get its hands on power. Plus any accommodation between Tories and Labour would look ridiculous for the Tories after Corbyn was so lambasted by them in the election campaign. He cannot have been bogeyman last week and saviour this week.
All of that is before we come to the practicalities of Brexit.
The fourth issue is how the UK government actually practically approaches Brexit. Negotiations were due to start in Brussels next week, but this has now been put back as a result of the delay to the Queen’s Speech as Jennifer Rankin explains in this Twitter thread. Oliver Robbins (Permanent Secretary of the Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU)) and Tim Barrow (UK Perm Rep to the EU) tried to get EU lead negotiator Barnier to agree to technical talks at official level next week, but Barnier (rightly in my view) refused this, judging that the UK side ought to have a clear political negotiation mandate first.
Meanwhile who is actually leading on the UK side has been thrown into doubt by Theresa May’s reshuffle, the fifth issue. George Bridges resigned and David Jones was moved from their junior minister posts at DExEU (summary here), to be replaced by Joyce Anelay and Steve Baker. The latter is about as hardline Brexiteer as you can imagine. One presumes that May wants a hardliner in the tent pissing out, rather than the opposite, but I am not sure such an abrasive character is going to work well in Brussels. Also all of this weakens the knowledge at the political level in DExEU – changing half your ministerial team a week before negotiations looks like game playing rather than a measured and serious approach.
The sixth issue – compounded by all of the above – is the Brexit timetable. By calling an early election after Article 50 had been triggered, Theresa May wasted 7 weeks of possible negotiation time. It is now 77 days – or more than 10% of the two years foreseen by Article 50 – before the UK is due to leave the EU. We are no clearer today about how Brexit is to proceed than we were back in March, and indeed quite the opposite. Barnier and Tusk on the EU side have been firm so far – the UK has some flexibility about the start of the negotiations, but the EU side is ready and prepared and expects everything to conclude on time. However just letting the clock run down is no use for the UK or for the EU either, as a crash-out Brexit damages the EU as well (as Martin Wolf argues in the FT (€)).
Meanwhile far from being the strongest economy in the G7 as May boasted in the General Election campaign, the UK’s growth was the slowest of all EU Member States in Q1 2017, inflation is inching up to a four year high (while pay remains squeezed), and recruitment of nurses from the rest of the EU is plummeting due to Brexit. If the arguments about Brexit are fraught now, imagine how they will be once all of this really begins to be felt by the population.
So there we have it. The UK’s position is enormously complicated thanks the the Conservative-DUP arrangement, a split Conservative Party, an incoherent Labour Party, a Department ill prepared for negotiations (whose job is complicated by a reshuffle), and all of this while the Article 50 clock is ticking.
That’s no reason for laughter or schadenfreude – that looks like a full on crisis to me. And there is no clear or simple way out.