A few short weeks ago when Theresa May called a General Election there was only one question on people’s minds: how big will her victory be? Faced with a Labour Party trailing in the polls, assumed to be demoralised thanks to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, and perceived to be too left wing for the electorate, calling the election looked like a tactically smart move by May – even if the delay it caused to the Brexit process caused some irritation in EU capitals.
In terms of the direct impact of the election on the actual Brexit negotiation I wrote on 12th May that I did not think the outcome would make much difference, but that was based on the assumption that a victory for May was a foregone conclusion, and her majority would increase. Now I am not so sure, and indeed even if her majority goes up after 8th June it may well prove to be a pyrrhic victory.
Essentially three things seem to have changed over the past few weeks since the election was called.
Firstly, the polls have narrowed quite considerably. This may ultimately not prove enough to mean Theresa May ends up with a reduced majority, or even that there is no party with a majority (hung parliament), but perceptions about the state of the parties and the outcome of the election have changed very swiftly. As Zoe Williams writes in The Guardian it feels like everything is suddenly fluid. The renewed pre-eminence of the two major parties whose combined vote share is set to substantially increase for the first time in decades, the decline of UKIP, and – despite the Brexit issue – the lack of a recovery of the Lib Dems, give this election a very different feel to those that have preceded it. Even the parties themselves feel somehow lacking in substance, with Brexit having shorn the Tories of all the characters from the Cameron era, and Corbyn having purged the Blairite hang overs in the Labour Party.
Secondly, Theresa May’s own authority is already in question. Despite being Prime Minister for less than a year, her honeymoon period is very definitely over. The controversy over the so-called “Dementia Tax” (and its abrupt withdrawal), a car crash interview with Andrew Neil, and ducking TV debates against other party leaders, paint a picture of May as being both aloof and bendable – hardly a positive combination. That she seems to trust only a tiny, tight circle of advisers might have worked as Home Secretary but is no way to build a wide base of support for her government. The marginalisation of Chancellor Philip Hammond contributes to this impression, and if May’s own authority is weakened after the election it means the chances of David Davis staying as Brexit Minister increase. Janan Ganesh develops this argument about May’s authority in the FT here.
Third, campaigns still matter – using both the traditional means and online. The Conservative campaign, so heavily based on May herself and using online advertising to target swing voters, is up against a determined ground game mounted by the Labour Party replete with new activists recruited thanks to Corbyn’s leadership – it is working to some extent. Both of these campaign methods largely bypass the mainstream media (and indeed there has been critique that both campaigns have sidelined the press), making compelling coverage of the election in the media rather hard – it is as if this election has not really sparked so far. That the Conservatives seem to lack ideas about what they would do with power were they to get it compounds this impression. Drawing conclusions about how the post-election period will look after a campaign like this is rather hard.
So why then is all of this relevant for Brexit?
The rest of the EU thought it was beginning to know what it would get from Theresa May on Brexit. That she at least would be able to deliver on what she said. That the post-election period in the UK would somehow be predictable, and that the real business of Brexit would commence sometime after 8th June.
Yet looking at the issue now it seems none of this is a foregone conclusion. May’s victory is likely to be nowhere near as convincing as everyone assumed just a few short weeks ago. The Labour Party is not going to be ground into the dust – Corbyn will be able to point to an increased vote share to save his own skin. Even if the media struggled to get its head around the EU referendum, it better knows how to critique a struggling government – Neil’s May interview, and George Osborne’s mischief making at The Evening Standard, are testimony to that.
The “Dementia Tax” episode shows that it does not take much critique to knock May off track, and so the same will happen on Brexit – even if the UK side gives its word about something in the negotiations, a week of sustained critique of the position in the UK press ought to be enough to force a U-Turn. The way to avoid that happening – for the government to make sure its positions have a broad base of support within the Tory Party – is an anathema to May, as that requires collegiate behaviour and public discussion, things she has obviously shunned both in this election campaign and in dealing with Brexit so far.
When fears are raised about the likelihood of a Brexit negotiation breakdown, the assumption has generally been that a bombastic UK demands the impossible from the EU, and a stand-off ensues. At the moment it looks like the opposite is also possible – that the UK cannot work out what it actually wants in the negotiation, and even if it does know it may not be able to deliver on its side of the bargain, and chaos ensues. Faced with a well prepared and unified EU side in the negotiations that could end up going very badly indeed for the UK.
(Note: there are two pretty big caveats to this blog entry. The first is that it assumes that the Conservatives will still have a majority after the election. If polls continue to narrow and the UK ends up with a hung parliament, who knows what will actually happen? I would posit that practically delivering Brexit within the two year timeframe foreseen in Article 50 would be impossible were that to come to pass. But let’s deal with that in the unlikely circumstance that it actually happens. Secondly, I assume that the narrowing of the polls is actually correct and will continue – there are varying views about that.)