From 9th June, every company that re-locates to Poland, every piece of weak economic data will be on herby Jay Elwes / April 28, 2017 / Leave a comment
When I suggested last July that Theresa May would need a second popular vote before she could go ahead with Brexit, the idea was attacked in, among other places, the pages of the Sunday Times. For Eurosceptics, any suggestion that problems might lie ahead amounted to sneering. But now the PM has called a general election in order to give herself a stronger Brexit mandate. She will no doubt win. And yet her victory will not ease her Brexit problems. It will instead bring a deeper challenge.
It was inevitable that she would seek this second vote. Without it her authority rested on a mandate passed down to her by David Cameron—a welcome inheritance—but one that consisted of a General Election victory by a pro-EU member of the Notting Hill liberal elite. May’s own brand of conservatism is something very different and that disparity was always going to be problematic.
May has called a Brexit election. Whether her margin of victory is narrow or vast, 8th June will not bring her the calm political waters that her Eurosceptic supporters crave. Her majority—be it 50 or 70 or 200—will give her renewed clout in Westminster. But it will have another, quite different effect. It will mean that she has nowhere to hide. She will be fully and unequivocally responsible for everything that follows. She will not be able to deflect blame onto those who have failed to “come together,” in the name of Brexit. Pro-Brexit newspapers will no longer have any grounds for blaming the judiciary, or “saboteurs,” or anyone else for the inevitable difficulties and failures of the Brexit negotiations. No. There will only be one person standing in the spotlight. The PM’s General Election victory will put her there.
A new and altogether more intense form of pressure will characterise the next phase of May’s government. She has not prepared for this. Rather, she has raised expectations through repeated, bold statements of intent. Chief among these has been the nostrum that “Brexit means Brexit,” a phrase that infuriated her opponents but which caused a warm glow in the hearts of eurosceptics who instinctively grasped its meaning: no half measures—we are going all out. That sense of confidence and satisfaction was on show at the final Prime Minister’s Questions before polling day, when a string of retiring Eurosceptic MPs assured the PM that they were stepping down confident that she would deliver on Brexit. After PMQs one of them, Douglas Carswell, the Independent MP, tweeted simply “job done.”
But the political future is never set and, at the risk of sounding banal, Britain has not left the European Union yet. The job is not done. The job has not even started. Many Eurosceptic Conservatives seem to have mistaken the lack of opposition in Westminster for a lack of opposition anywhere. But they are wrong. The EU’s member states have so far put up a united front in the Brexit negotiations. No individual EU nation has been willing to discuss Brexit with Britain. There have been no talks about trade and there will be none until the terms of Britain’s departure are settled. As Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, put it in a statement, “we will not discuss our future relations with the UK until we have achieved sufficient progress on the main issues relating to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.” Brussels has floated the figure of £50bn as Britain’s fee for leaving the EU.
If that seems a negative assessment, it is worth considering that Article 50 was triggered a month ago—ask yourself, what has been achieved by Britain’s negotiators in that time? What concessions gained? Breakthroughs achieved?
There is little reason to expect a sudden flurry of progress, or a softening of the EU’s negotiating posture. As Angela Merkel told the German Parliament on Thursday, if Britain leaves the EU it will “not have same rights” as other EU member states. The implications of that statement are enormous. The EU states meet this weekend to finalise their negotiating stance. Note that Brussels has not even agreed its own strategy. They are not in a hurry. The pressure is not on them.
It becomes quite clear then, that the coming electoral majority will bring first the popping of corks, followed sharply by the discomfort of extreme political exposure. Even if May does expand her majority on 8th June and the eurosceptics on her back benches are diluted by new, more moderate MPs, the hard Brexit tendency will not vanish from her party, or from the mish-mash of political activists, columnists and outsiders who continue to bang the Brexit drum. And the trouble will begin when it becomes clear that the PM cannot make good on the promises of her Brexit rhetoric. Heaven help May if she dares opt for a compromise deal with Brussels. Nigel Farage might even make a comeback. Again.
And then there’s the question of the Conservative manifesto. The wording of the party’s commitment to Brexit will warrant close scrutiny. If it commits to a full withdrawal from the EU and its institutions, then the PM’s hands will be tied. Anything other than total, no-compromise Brexit would then be a violation of a manifesto commitment. That would be cause for serious trouble.
The irony of her impending electoral victory is that it will not change the PM’s position very much. Her central political task—Brexit—will still lie ahead and her Westminster opponents will still be weak.
The real difference will be that, from 9th June onward, everything will be “on her”: every company that re-locates to Poland, every piece of weak economic data, every capitulation to Brussels, and every poll showing public unease at Brexit. Everything will be down to the Prime Minister. A deep pressure will build.
And the clock will be ticking.