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20 April 2017

How a Conservative election victory would make Brexit harder – and softer

Theresa May would win a mandate for single market withdrawal but have more time for a transitional period.

By George Eaton

Ever since Theresa May became Prime Minister she has been charged with lacking a mandate for “hard Brexit”. Though the Leave campaign pledged to withdraw the UK from the European single market, the referendum result is judged an insufficient endorsement by Remainers.

By calling an early election, May has given herself the chance to win an unambiguous mandate for what she calls “clean Brexit”. The Conservative manifesto will repeat her commitments to withdraw the UK from the single market, the customs union and European jurisdiction. Though May has comfortably won every House of Commons vote on Brexit (despite her slim majority of 17 seats), a large victory will further reduce the possibility of defeat. George Osborne’s decision to resign as an MP reflects the Leavers’ impregnability. Under the Salisbury Convention, the House of Lords will also be denied the right to delay related legislation.

But though a Conservative victory will allow May to harden Brexit it will also allow her to soften it. The UK will almost certainly not have time to agree a new trade agreement with the EU before the two-year deadline, so the Prime Minister has accepted the need for a transitional or “implementation” period after Britain leaves in March 2019. This will prevent the economic calamity of leaving without a deal and reverting to WTO trade terms (and steep tariffs). But as May has recognised, the EU could demand that free movement and European jurisdiction continue to apply during this interim phase.

Until this week, the next general election was due to be held in May 2020 – an unavoidable clash with the transitional period. Ukip and Tory rebels would have been to able charge the PM with delivering Brexit “in name only”. But with the next election now due in May 2022, the government has greater political flexibility (prompting an immediate rise in the pound). A senior Brexiteer told me that Leavers would be prepared to accept a one or two year transitional period before they reach “the promised land”. To May’s benefit, the electoral cycle is now aligned with the Brexit cycle. The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, was quick to acknowledge the greater potential for “compromises within the EU”. More than ever, the UK is on course for a “hard Brexit”. But the landing may be softer.

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