On the now-distant day in April when Theresa May called an early general election, one reason was given: Brexit. The threat that opposition parties could obstruct or block the process, the Prime Minister said, left her with no choice. A campaign defined by the European Question appeared destined to follow.
But “the Brexit election” did not live up to its billing. Although the UK will begin negotiating its departure on 11 June, the Conservatives and Labour said little during the campaign about how they would approach the process. It suited both to provide platitudes, rather than details. In different respects, the main parties pretend that the UK can retain most of the benefits of EU membership without any of the costs. The Conservatives have vowed to achieve control of free movement but have not acknowledged the economic harm that would result. Labour has pledged to retain the benefits of single-market and customs union membership while also ending unlimited immigration – an unfeasible demand.
Brexit is a forbidding task, with unknown economic consequences, but the election showed there is little desire among the public to halt it. The Liberal Democrats, who have promised a second referendum, did not enjoy the surge that some forecast. The Scottish National Party, which has demanded another independence referendum before the UK leaves, suffered a fall in support. Contrary to Remain rhetoric, “the 48 Per Cent” no longer exists. Roughly 70 per cent of voters (a third of whom backed EU membership) believe the priority is to achieve the best divorce deal possible.
Recent weeks have shown how difficult that will be. Many Brexiteers predicted that the Leave vote would trigger a great unravelling of the EU. Yet Brussels has emerged strengthened. The victory of the Europhile French president, Emmanuel Macron, and the remarkable resilience of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, have emboldened “Old Europe”. After years of stagnant economic growth, the eurozone is enjoying a sustained recovery, significantly outperforming the United States. The EU will enter the Brexit negotiations more unified than its adversaries anticipated.
Mrs Merkel’s recent speech, in which she warned that Europe could no longer “rely” on the US and Britain, presented a stark picture of the new geopolitical landscape. When Donald Trump was elected as president, some Brexiteers hailed his victory as an opportunity for the UK. Yet just four months after Mr Trump entered the White House, the risks are obvious. The US president is a man who never fails to sink to the occasion. He chose the aftermath of the London Bridge terror attack to insult and traduce the city’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, who responded with characteristic dignity. Only two days earlier, in his most reckless and myopic act yet, Mr Trump withdrew the US from the Paris climate-change agreement.
Although Mrs May is right to maintain working relations with the president, the hasty offer of a state visit seems even more unwise than it did when it was made. More so than in the recent past, there must be a critical distance between the UK and the US. Any hope that Mr Trump would be moderated by office has been dispelled.
The US’s troubled trajectory is further proof that “the Anglosphere” cannot function as an alternative to the EU. If Britain is destined to leave the European Union, in line with the public’s wishes, it must do so on the best terms possible.
Mrs May’s outlook is more pragmatic than her rhetoric at times suggests. The Conservative manifesto acknowledges the need for a “fair settlement of the UK’s rights and obligations” (the much-dreaded “divorce bill”) and raises the possibility of budgetary contributions for “specific European programmes”. But if Britain is to avoid a calamitous exit, Mrs May will have to face down those in her party and in the right-wing press who abhor any compromise. The Prime Minister’s backbench opponents, and her European counterparts, have taken heart from her recent U-turns.
Britain now faces its most complex postwar negotiation, one that will define politics for at least the next decade. Even after the UK has left the EU, it will need to renegotiate at least 759 trade agreements with 168 other countries. The election was an opportunity for politicians to level with the public about the invidious choices Britain faces – but the necessary reckoning has been postponed.
This article appears in the 07 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special