Parliamentary maths looks set to change UK’s Brexit course

By on 14/06/2017 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Theresa May now facing tug-of-war over the imminent Brexit negotiations (Image courtesy UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor)

British prime minister Theresa May’s failure to secure an overall parliamentary majority in last week’s general election has left her in the middle of what looks set to become a ferocious tug-of-war over how the UK will approach the imminent Brexit negotiations.

May has bought herself some political breathing space with her own party, striking a contrite tone in a meeting with backbench Tory MPs yesterday and apologising for the election result. “I got us into this mess, and I’m going to get us out of it,” she said.

But the prime minister now finds herself in a situation in which she will have to manage not just the Eurosceptic and Europhile wings of her party on the Brexit issue, but also the interests of numerous other parties whose leverage has increased since last Thursday.

Chief among these is Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), with whom May is seeking to build a parliamentary alliance that would give the Tories a slender majority – enabling her to pass a Queen’s Speech and Budget.

Although the DUP shares the Conservatives’ desire to leave the EU, the party does not wish to see a ‘hard’ border reinstated between Northern Ireland and the Republic – an outcome that would both cause severe economic damage to the two highly integrated economies, and inflame tensions over Northern Ireland’s status.

Unlike May, who has consistently said that “no deal with the EU is better than a bad deal”, the unionist party has avoided laying down red lines. “The DUP, for all its hard-line reputation on this side of the Irish Sea, has none of the ‘no deal’ language in its manifesto,” said Jill Rutter, programme director at the Institute for Government think-tank in a commentary.

“That is because it realises a deal is needed to avoid a hard border emerging with the South (and with it, potential pressure for a solution which might entail more unity with the Republic), but at the same time, the party is against any special status for the North that divides it from the UK.”

Rutter said May will also need to heed the fact that the DUP will want to avoid a “disorderly” Brexit that would most likely be a “disaster” for the Northern Ireland economy.

Similarly, May will need to take on board Labour and Liberal Democrat positions on Brexit. These two parties have taken different stances on the issue – Labour supporting the outcome of last year’s referendum vote but rejecting the “no deal” option in favour of continuing close relations with the EU, and the Liberal Democrats opposing Brexit altogether. Their support will be crucial to May, but is only likely to be proffered on the basis of concessions that are more in line with their positions.

“The Conservative government’s need for support in parliament means that it will be under pressure to soften its stance in negotiations,” said IfG director Bronwen Maddox. The Tories have 318 of the 650 Commons seats, the DUP 10, and they can hope for the support of one independent unionist – giving them 329. Given that Irish republicans Sinn Fein do not take their seven seats and the Commons Speaker does not vote, the Tories could win a Queen’s Speech vote by 329 votes to 312. But if just nine Tories vote against the government on later bills – which must include a huge legislative programme designed to push through Brexit – then the vote would be lost.

One idea that has gained currency in the past few days is that of some kind of cross-party commission to debate and agree a more consensual position for the UK in the Article 50 negotiations – presumably enabling May to rely on Labour, LibDem and Scottish National Party votes on key Brexit votes and thus face down the hardline Brexiteer wing of her own party.

Writing in the Guardian newspaper yesterday, Labour MP and former work and pensions secretary Yvette Cooper spelled out how such an arrangement might operate: “It should be accountable to parliament but avoid getting caught up in the inevitable hung parliament political rows. It’s true there is no precedent for this. But there’s no precedent for anything any more. No one will get everything they want. Everyone will have to compromise. But in the national interest we all have a responsibility to work in a grown-up way now over the Brexit negotiations.”

To avoid the “cliff edge” of a hard Brexit, European Policy Centre chief executive Fabian Zuleeg said, May will need to be prepared to make concessions on EU citizens’ rights, the role of the European Court, and the legacy payment made by Britain the EU when it leaves. Britain will probably need to accept the “status quo” in any transition arrangements, Zuleeg added.

However, bigger questions remain over immigration and membership of the Single Market and Customs Union – all of which have been reopened by the result of the election.

Writing in the Evening Standard newspaper, Lord Adonis, a former Labour minister in the Blair and Brown administrations, argued that May’s key objective for a “sane” Brexit should be to negotiate an interim deal with the EU that maintains the UK’s position in the single market and customs union on a temporary basis.

Adonis said there is sufficiently strong support for such an approach within the Tory party and across parliament to prevail against the harder line approach of senior Eurosceptic Tories such as Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, David Davis and Liam Fox.

Such an arrangement would also afford time for the UK and EU to negotiate a longer-term bespoke deal, Adonis said, in which the UK would continue to remain in the Single Market and Customs Union but take back control of immigration policy – arguably one of the biggest factors behind last year’s ‘leave’ vote. Adonis argued that there is a growing realisation in the EU that freedom of movement is “not – whatever [European Commission president] Jean-Claude Juncker says – an indispensable condition for an effective single European market”.

“If Britain were allowed to restrict free movement of workers while remaining in the Single Market and Customs Union, parliament, not the EU, would decide our immigration policy. But there would continue be an unrestricted right to travel and study freely across the EU, and the rights of existing residents would be guaranteed,” Adonis said.

“Crucially, our trade and economic security would not be affected. And there would be no need for complex negotiations over trade and much else, which are virtually certain to result in acrimony and damage both to Britain and the rest of Europe.”

Such an approach would undoubtedly not attract the support of the hard Brexiteers in the Tory party looking for a clean break from the EU, and of course the spectre of a resurgent UK Independence Party waiting in the wings remains an ongoing threat for May – though UKIP had a terrible election, and its leader has just resigned. But there may be enough support from Tory Remain supporters and MPs in other parties including the DUP, Labour and the Scottish National Party for such an approach to succeed.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Channel, despite the threats from EU leaders, some observers believe there may be an appetite to accommodate a softer Brexit.

“The EU’s leaders should also remember that a softer form of Brexit serves both their economic and political purposes,” said John Springford and Simon Tilford of the Centre for European Reform think-tank. “Britain would suffer most from higher barriers to trade, investment and the movement of people, but these do impose costs on the rest of the EU too. If the next British government chooses to pursue a more moderate form of Brexit, this would serve as a powerful reminder to continental Eurosceptics: the EU has advantages that even Britain finds difficult to walk away from.”

French President Emmanuel Macron yesterday told Theresa May that the UK’s March decision to trigger Article 50 – beginning a two-year period of negotiations – was not irreversible. In reality even Remainers expect the UK to leave the EU, due to the political difficulties of challenging the referendum result. But the election result clearly changes the dynamics within parliament: well over half of sitting MPs voted Remain, and Theresa May’s plan to play tough in negotiations then abruptly leave the Single Market and Customs Union no longer looks viable.

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See also:

Clock ticking for Theresa May as EU leaders stand firm on Brexit timetable

UK election surprise leaves Brexit talks uncertain

EU pledges Brexit transparency


About Ben Willis

Ben Willis is a journalist and editor with a varied background reporting on topics including public policy, the environment, renewable energy and international development. His work has appeared in a variety of national newspapers including the Guardian, Daily Telegraph and Times, as well as numerous specialist business, policy and consumer publications.

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