Brexit and UK general election: What unintended consequences for Theresa May?

Written by Andrew Duff on 28 July 2017

Theresa May | Photo credit: Press Association

The UK general election has provided Theresa May with one final shot at Brexit, writes Andrew Duff.

The UK general election of 8 June has delivered some shock therapy.

As far as May is concerned, the election has had one unintended and two intended consequences. First, she has achieved her goal of entrenching the referendum decision of 23 June 2016 that the UK should leave the European Union. 

The election provided parliamentary legitimacy to the controversial popular vote: both Labour and Conservatives campaigned to complete Brexit, and all the smaller parties who wanted something else lost votes. So there will be no more talk of the possible revocation of Article 50. Brexit does indeed mean Brexit.


Second, the UK Prime Minister has successfully pushed the date of the next scheduled general election forward two years to 2022, leaving the conclusion of the Article 50 withdrawal agreement, its endorsement by Westminster, and indeed Brexit day itself (29 March 2019) free from the shadow of immediate electioneering.

However, the unintended consequence of the snap general election has been devastating for May and her party: she has lost the slim but overall majority that she inherited from David Cameron, and will now be reliant for survival on a 'confidence and supply agreement' with the Democrat Unionist Party (DUP) - an anti-EU, populist and sectarian party from Northern Ireland who will demand more money for the province. 

If Theresa May had hoped that a much larger contingent of Tory MPs would give her sufficient room for manoeuvre to sack various under-performing and eccentric Brexiteer ministers, she has been confounded. The Brexiteers stay in the cabinet, and are even joined by Michael Gove as the new secretary of state for the environment.

Furthermore, the election result has left many Tory MPs with very slender majorities in their constituencies over Labour and Liberal Democrat challengers. Another general election held before 2022 would not only be exceedingly unpopular in the country, but would almost certainly lead the way to Jeremy Corbyn stumbling into No 10. 

Despite their divisions over Europe, the Tory party in the Commons will back Theresa May until she finishes the job of Brexit. Her parlous political position has already forced her to be contrite to the point of humiliation. 

She has apologised to her MPs for "getting us into this mess", and has sacrifice her two closest anti-EU advisors. Some accommodation with the Tory Remainers seems to be underway: although they will hate this, the Tory Brexiteers dare not trigger another general election.

Mercifully, we should not hear again that "no deal is better than a bad deal" - at least from the lips of the Prime Minister.

Continued membership of the EU customs union would restrict the freedom of 'global Britain' to strike new trade deals with third countries. But retaining the EU's common commercial policy and external tariffs would permit the UK to try to hitch a ride on the EU's growing number of free trade agreements with other countries. 

The UK would also remain free to do trade agreements with countries with which the EU does not (yet) have deals. 

However, quite frankly, Liam Fox's initial exploratory talks with third countries across the planet have not revealed much potential for early bilateral trade deals - with the exception of Turkey which is, par hasard, already a member of the EU's customs union. 

It seems beyond dispute that the costs of leaving the EU's customs union would hugely outweigh the potential benefits of any FTAs the UK could dig up elsewhere.

One may be confounded, as May has already been, by the internal circus of Conservative party politics. 

But meanwhile the EU is impatient and ready to get on with dispatching the British from membership. The rest of Europe needs to turn away from the problems of disintegration to reviving the noble cause, once again, of 'ever closer union'. 

The EU's leaders could help things along by responding positively to a reconstructed Theresa May. A friendly steer here from Council President Donald Tusk and a firm pull there from Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker towards guaranteeing Britain's future as a European country could make all the difference. We British are unlikely to manage this on our own if left to our own devices and desires. 

Theresa May has one more shot at Brexit, but only one: I am assured that any request by the UK for new and softer guidelines from the European Council would be counterproductive.


About the author

Andrew Duff is a former MEP and a visiting fellow at the European Policy Centre (EPC).

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