Election leaves May in bind for Brexit talks
Cries for closer ties to European Union have grown louder
LONDON — Ridiculed by the right-wing tabloid media and ignored by Prime Minister Theresa May as she pursued plans for a clean break with the European Union, Britain’s pro-Europeans suddenly have something they have long wanted: leverage. After the recent stunning general election, in which her governing Conservative Party lost its parliamentary majority, May faces pressure from both inside and outside the party to soften her plans to exit the bloc, a process known as Brexit, as talks are set to begin Monday.
The pro-Europe Britons’ demands that May maintain closer ties to the European Union have grown louder — in particular the calls to keep Britain in Europe’s customs union, which provides tariff-free access to European markets and helps integrate the British and European economies.
For the first time since the referendum on Britain’s exit, there is “an opportunity to have a much better relationship with the European Union,” said Roland Rudd, a senior figure in the defeated “remain” campaign and founder of Finsbury, a communications company.
No easy options
Anand Menon, a professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London, said, “I think on balance in the House of Commons there is a majority for something softer than Theresa May’s idea of Brexit.”
This, Menon said, creates a difficult dynamic for May. She emerged from the snap election she called with a far weaker hand for Brexit negotiations, and must also avert a return to feuding over Europe in her Conservative Party, where there is still strong support for a tough stance.
The new and changed political landscape makes the prospect of two outcomes more likely, he said: “a softer Brexit” or “a chaotic Brexit.”
For May, there are no easy options. If she waters down her exit strategy — as her predecessor, David Cameron, has urged her to consider — that could set off a rebellion from hard-line “leave” supporters, including David Davis, the Cabinet minister responsible for negotiating Britain’s withdrawal, and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Both are potential successors to May.
Yet, if she does not move away from their agenda, which prioritizes control over immigration and lawmaking above the country’s economic interests, May risks legislative gridlock in Parliament, where she has no clear majority and must rely on 10 lawmakers from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.
Central to her attempts to govern effectively will be the more pro-European politicians in May’s government. She promoted one of them, Damian Green, a longtime ally, to first secretary of state and kept in place Philip Hammond, the chancellor of the Exchequer, whom she had intended to fire, according to news reports.
Hammond is believed to be pressing May to make a U-turn and consider retaining membership of Europe’s customs union. That could be done without accepting the free movement of European workers, which May is determined to end in order to curb immigration. But it would most likely mean abandoning her idea of striking bilateral trade deals with non-European nations, including the United States.
The prospect of Britain’s continuing indefinitely in Europe’s single market, which removes non-tariff barriers and helps trade in services, is less likely. That would almost certainly involve accepting free movement, something that both May and Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn have ruled out.
May could stall the negotiations for a time, because the immediate focus of the talks will be on other issues, including the rights of EU citizens living in Britain.
But the Labor Party knows that in her weakened position in Parliament, the prime minister could eventually be defeated over a range of issues, including Brexit-related bills. Even if she gets such legislation through the House of Commons, she will have to worry about the unelected House of Lords, where she has no majority, either.
That chamber delayed her plans to announce, by invoking Article 50, that Britain was leaving the EU, but ultimately cleared the way.
By tradition, the House of Lords yields to the House of Commons on issues that were in the governing party’s election manifesto, and therefore have been endorsed by the voters. But, after her electoral setback, that convention is unlikely to apply to May’s exit plans.
“It was very, very difficult for Theresa May before the election,” Menon said, “and it has now become significantly more difficult still.”