When she secures an increased majority, she will be able to soften Britain’s exit from the EU if necessaryby Ros Altmann / May 10, 2017 / Leave a comment
Theresa May addresses Conservative parliamentary candidates for London and the south east at the Dhamecha Lohana Centre in Harrow ©Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images We may be on the cusp of a political earthquake: old tribal political loyalties are breaking down across the country. Many traditional Labour voters are switching to the Tories. Ukip voters too. The government is in a commanding position, and prime minister Theresa May is seeking to consolidate her gains: she has called an election, seeking a strong mandate to negotiate Britain’s future. I expect the British people will give her their trust: she leads the country virtually unopposed. It is almost like an autocracy. Assuming that she does win a landslide, she will be in the strongest position any PM could wish for as she heads off to negotiate with Brussels. And the received wisdom is that, with the country united behind her, she will be able to strike a better deal for Britain. This may turn out to be the case. But consider, for a moment, another possibility. Imagine that the European Union does not bend to Britain’s will. If this turns out to be the case, May should consider putting her large majority to another use entirely. If the PM hangs tough and does not blink first, she may be able to achieve the desired outcome: a good Brexit deal with minimal costs to Britain—and big opportunities to trade globally. Perhaps the rest of the EU really will be petrified of Britain leaving, and treat it as a special case, allowing us to keep the trading advantages we currently have as members while we negotiate new trade relationships with other countries. If this happens, May, and those who strongly support Brexit, will have been vindicated. We will have our cake and eat it, and the promises made to the British electorate will be kept. Job done. Thinking along these lines, Brexiteers are getting rather excited about the Prospect of Theresa May increasing her mandate. But what if, as the EU27 are warning, Britain’s hopes of a good Brexit deal prove illusory? An impossible dream? What if we dig in our heels, refuse to accept the demands of our partners and end up facing the prospect of “no deal”? What if, by then, the indicators show that this would spell disaster for our economy? It is here that Theresa May increasing her majority could actually help the cause of the Brexit sceptics and those who oppose a disastrous hard Brexit. With a massive parliamentary majority, May could take a softer line. The opposition—both outside her own party and within it—would not have the power to deter her from pursuing whatever route she chose. Currently, she relies upon the support of fiercely eurosceptic backbenchers. After 8th June, she will be able to overrule them. Rather than taking the country over the cliff-edge, she could explain her fears that a “no deal” scenario could hurt Britain. If, for example, leaving with no deal makes it impossible for us to keep Northern Ireland and Gibraltar, or our airplanes can’t fly freely or our nuclear industry cannot function, or we can’t trade even with our closest neighbours let alone trade more with others, then she will have the chance to avert disaster. If Nissan or other major manufacturers and financial firms warn they will have to leave the UK if we cannot rely on trading with the EU on good terms, the prospect of so many Britons losing their livelihoods could elicit a reconsideration. So far the potential dangers have been just that. Potential. If they become real, what will the PM do? She could carry on regardless, or she could ask the country what it wants her to do. Having tried her best, she would then have the chance to change course. Whether that meant a long transition period to Brexit, or remaining as “associate members’” in a reformed EU, or some other fudge, the PM could still avert disaster. Of course nobody wants to talk about this just now—we are going ahead all guns blazing for Brexit, expecting the EU to capitulate in the end and give us a good deal because they need us more than we need them. But as the old saying goes, if the facts change… So, oddly, despite defying our normal democratic principles, a period of relative “autocracy” might allow the PM to pursue a more pragmatic and flexible course—as eurosceptic backbenchers will pose less of a problem for her. Having tried her best to negotiate a good Brexit deal, she could give the British people a chance to think again. That is true democracy in action, even if it is achieved by over-riding normal democratic principles for a while. Or am I just living on another planet? Time will tell. Where will Theresa May’s surprise ballot leave the government, the opposition and a divided country? Join us for our big election debate on the 6th of June 2017. Tom Clark, Prospect’s editor, will be joined by Nick Cohen, Matthew Parris and Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit.