You couldn’t really make it up!
First there was the surprise result in the Brexit referendum last year. Then it was the unexpected Trump victory in the US Presidential election. Now following yesterday’s UK General Election we have a Conservative party with no overall Parliamentary majority tasked with having to navigate a UK withdrawal from the European Union in the most difficult negotiations this country has faced since the end of the Second World War.
The unpredictability of electorates appears to becoming the new norm and right on cue the UK Electorate delivered an unexpected and harsh rebuff to Prime Minister Theresa May’s quest for an increased Parliamentary majority. She had hoped to increase her previous majority of 17 to 50 or even three figures against a backdrop of a chaotic and shambolic Labour Party trialing 20 points behind in the opinion polls.
But she underestimated the popular appeal of the opposition Labour Party’s anti-austerity message. Led by charismatic and mild mannered left wing leader Jeremy Corbyn his message particularly appealed to the young voters that turned out in droves to cast their vote for the first time. It was also an indictment of Mrs. May’s attempt to focus the election issues on Brexit and latterly on security in the wake of the terrorist outrages in Manchester and London. The result made clear that the electorate had far wider concerns on their mind as well such as health and education and housing which the Conservatives failed to adequately address. Further, it has been widely reported that the more the public saw of Mrs. May, the less they liked her. Her chat show and informal interview appearances, whilst engineered to increase her likeability, instead backfired on a leader many saw as competent but lacking in charisma.
So the Conservatives finished the election with approximately 318 seats, with Labour on 261 and the smaller parties totaling around 70 seats. With no overall majority Mrs May will have to rely on the support of the Democratic Unionist MPs from Northern Ireland to command an overall majority.
Apart from the inevitable uncertainty and difficulty of executing normal Parliamentary business as a minority administration it has plunged the Brexit negotiations with the European Union due to start on 19th June into disarray.
Mrs. May was anxious to get her own mandate from the electorate to pursue her vision of Brexit. The referendum vote last year had delivered a verdict that the country wanted to leave the EU but did not elaborate upon what terms.
So this was her opportunity to put flesh on the bones of her mantra “Brexit means Brexit”.
Top of the list will be resisting the highly controversial EU demands as part of the divorce negotiations for the UK to pay for accrued past liabilities of up to Euros 100 bn. I think she can probably demand and secure widespread Parliamentary support in resisting Europe’s over-exaggerated claims.
But that is where the unanimity ends.
She wanted more or less carte blanche to negotiate a deal based on what is commonly termed “Hard Brexit”. She campaigned on the ticket of leaving the Single European Market and the EU Customs Union, the removal of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in the UK Courts as well as asserting control of UK borders, thereby ending the rights of free movement for Community citizens into the UK.
She also refused to unilaterally guarantee the rights of Community citizens in the UK. Whilst logic would tell us this is only good negotiating tactics until the EU has guaranteed reciprocal rights for UK citizens in the EU, it was seen by many as being too cold and calculating in its approach to the many foreign workers that are part of the bedrock of the UK economy.
To replace Single Market Access she wanted an all-encompassing free trade deal with the European Union which the EU is reluctant to negotiate until the UK has agreed the divorce bill.
In addition there was to be a “Great Repeal Bill” that would incorporate into UK law any EU laws not already specifically incorporated into our legal system. This was to provide legal certainty as at the date of Brexit. But opposition parties are likely to clash over the approach of the Bill and Labour certainly will want to put forward their own alternative “progressive” approach of having an EU Rights Bill which sits more comfortably with their more flexible views on our post-Brexit relationship with our European neighbours.
So despite all the tough talk about “strength and stability” and walking away from a bad deal if no advantageous terms were offered by the EU 27, this election has changed everything.
Mrs. May is a fighter and she will no doubt soldier on to provide a period of stability for the UK Government both domestically and in the Brussels negotiations but it is hard to see how she can continue successfully long term.
With her political creditability ‘holed beneath the water line’ negotiating assertively and successfully with an increasingly aggressive and protectionist European Union is going to be far from easy.
Driving through a Hard Brexit agenda is not going to win her the cross party support in the House of Commons she will need to carry the day. Most MPs don’t back leaving the Single European Market and it only needs a few rebels to torpedo the Government’s EU negotiating strategy.
So the Government will need to really rethink its EU negotiating stance in light of this adverse election result and carry Parliament with it. If it does not then it is only a matter of time before it has to go back to the polls or even dare I say it go back to the country for a second referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union.