When Theresa May called the general election, she claimed that it was all about Brexit. “Every vote for the Conservatives will make me stronger when I negotiate for Britain with the prime ministers, presidents and chancellors of the European Union,” she said.
The “strong and stable” message that she pinned her election hopes on was all about securing a large mandate for her hard Brexit position, so that she could go into negotiations with the EU27 representatives confident that she had a large Conservative majority in the House of Commons to pass any Brexit-related legislation that she might need with minimal opposition.
Yet after the vote, Theresa May finds herself with fewer Conservative MPs than David Cameron secured in 2015. Based on the electoral arithmetic of this hung parliament, the most likely outcome looks to be a minority Conservative government propped up by the pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland – who last night increased their total from eight to ten parliamentary seats.
The Brexit negotiations were due to begin on 19 June. However, there has already been suggestion that these could be delayed. The EU budget commissioner Gunther Oettinger has responded to the UK election result on German radio, saying that May’s weakened position could cause problems for both sides.
Guy Verhofstadt, the Brexit negotiator for the European parliament, fears the outcome of this election will make “already complex negotiations even more complicated.”
Yet another own goal, after Cameron now May, will make already complex negotiations even more complicated.
— Guy Verhofstadt (@GuyVerhofstadt) 9 juin 2017
“We need a government that can act. With a weak negotiating partner, there’s the danger that the negotiations will turn out badly for both sides. . . I expect more uncertainty now.”
Without a Commons majority, even if May remains as Prime Minister (which at the moment she is indicating that she will) she could have to water down any Brexit-related legislation that goes before parliament if it is to pass.
Her “hard Brexit” option involved the UK leaving the single market and the customs union, with an end to the free movement of workers, but all of these elements could end up back on the table, along with the so-called “Norway option” that would see the UK remain in the European Economic Area. Former Conservative chancellor George Osborne said on ITV News: “Hard Brexit went into the rubbish bin tonight.”
If there are protracted hung parliament negotiations, the Brexit talks may have to be delayed further. If no one party can command the confidence of the House of Commons, existing ministers stay in office but operate under purdah rules, which advise against new actions or directions not supported by the democratic vote.
The Labour Party’s election manifesto set out its position on Brexit clearly. It said that it “accepts the referendum result” but opposed the Conservatives’ proposals for hard Brexit. It said: “We will scrap the Conservatives’ Brexit White Paper and replace it with fresh negotiating priorities that have a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union – which are essential for maintaining industries, jobs and businesses in Britain.”
It also said it would prioritise the rights of EU nationals living in Britain – something which Theresa May had declined to address before beginning the Brexit process with the triggering of Article 50 – and seek to protect workers’ rights in any eventual deal with the EU.
There are many uncertainties around the Brexit process – even more than there were before the election was called. Yet one thing is clear: Theresa May called an election in order to strengthen her hand in the Brexit negotiations. She has achieved precisely the opposite.