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A Brexit Election: But Don’t Expect the EU as Its Focus

The UK’s unexpected general election will take place on Thursday 8 June. And despite the surprise, all the party leaders are already off on the campaign trail almost as if they knew the election was coming.

It’s been dubbed the Brexit election. Prime Minister Theresa May claims it will enable her to have a strong negotiating hand in Brussels, unhampered by the unhelpful opposition parties. Others see a simpler, more cynical motivation to grab the large majority of MPs that polls suggest she will get – as well perhaps as getting the more extreme Brexiteers off her back.

The LibDems see it as a chance for a come-back of sorts: with their more positive stance on the EU, they hope to attract a big chunk of the 48% who voted ‘remain’ last June. But they are unlikely to get back to the 50 seats they had in 2010. Labour meanwhile remains in some disarray. With the Tories around 20 percentage points ahead in the polls (one recent poll putting them at 47% to Labour’s 26%), Labour are facing a melt-down. And UKIP is down from 14% to 9%, its supporters perhaps seeing its work as done.

In Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP) wiped the floor with its opponents in 2015, taking 56 of 59 seats. They may lose a few seats from this high water mark (how many will be watched closely), but they will be fighting the election on an anti-Tory basis, rather than making it a pro-independence or pro-EU fight.

Will the pro-EU 48% fight back?

The UK public remain divided over Brexit. The latest poll (19 April), on whether with hindsight voters think the Brexit vote was right or wrong, split on the same lines as last 23 June: 52% saying it was right, 48% wrong.

Yet, while Labour, LibDem and SNP voters all support staying in the EU by a two-thirds or more margin, the election is not about to be a re-run of the EU referendum campaign. Theresa May is already arguing a strong Tory vote will give her the best hand for the UK-EU27 talks (quite why is not entirely clear, since she has won all main votes on Brexit in the House of Commons so far). Labour’s policy of going along with Brexit leaves it little room to pick up ‘Remain’ voters. And since Labour does not support staying in the EU’s single market, its line that it will stop a Tory hard Brexit looks unconvincing – both Tories and Labour are effectively looking for a good third country trade deal between the UK and EU27.

This would seem to leave the field clear, in making the pro-EU case, for the LibDems and the SNP. But while positioning themselves as the most pro-EU party, the LibDems, and leader Tim Farron, are essentially arguing for a soft Brexit – defined as staying in the single market (and so respecting the four freedoms). The LibDems are not prepared to argue now for a second referendum on the EU. Like Labour, they are nervous of being seen not to respect the result of the referendum, close though it was. Instead, they will make the case for a soft Brexit and for both a parliamentary vote and a referendum on the deal May brings home in autumn 2018. Then they argue, if the deal isn’t good enough, the UK public can decide, after tough and difficult exit negotiations, that they want to stay in the EU after all.

Talks first then reconsider Brexit?

The LibDems stance is a weak one. Any pro-EU political leader who recognises the immense damage and disruption Brexit is causing, especially to the UK but also to the EU27, should surely be arguing for the UK to change course now. Instead, the LibDems accept that the 18 months of exit talks will happen first before a second referendum should happen. This also sidesteps the fact that there will, in autumn 2018, be at best an outline of a framework for a future trade deal, not a done deal at all.

Labour too emphasises a vote in the Commons in autumn 2018. But neither they nor the LibDems really address what will happen then if the Commons did vote ‘no’ to the deal. The EU27 are unlikely to suddenly offer a better deal at that point, and the two year Article 50 clock will be nearing its final few months before the UK risks tumbling out of the EU on WTO terms. And, so far, neither Labour nor the SNP are backing the LibDems in their call for a second referendum on the exit deal, so it’s an unlikely outcome.

Scotland out on a limb?

In Scotland, many predict the election will be about independence not about Brexit. Certainly, as in the upcoming local elections on 4 May, the Tories are trying to make it about independence.

For Nicola Sturgeon, the general election has disrupted her stand-off with Theresa May as to whether Scotland can hold a second independence referendum before the UK leaves the EU in March 2019. But Sturgeon looks likely to fight the general election on an anti-Tory, anti-austerity platform. Sturgeon already has a majority vote by the Scottish parliament (SNP and Greens voting together) backing her call for a second independence referendum.

If the SNP lose a handful of seats on 8 June, Sturgeon will still argue she has a mandate for a referendum (both from the Scottish Parliament and from having the majority of Scottish MPs) – something that will be hotly debated from both sides. Theresa May, with a larger majority in the House of Commons, will doubtless still oppose that – and much will be made of any increase in Tory MPs in Scotland (though the Tories one MP in Scotland has a wafer thin majority so others are arguing a Tory wipe-out is possible).

Nicola Sturgeon has been playing her cards close to her chest over whether she will argue for Scottish independence in the EU when there is a second independence referendum – conscious of the third of SNP voters who chose ‘leave’ in the Brexit referendum. Whether she will be clearer on this – or keep fudging the EU or European Economic Area choice in the general election – will be something to watch.

And on 9 June?

On 9 June, Theresa May will have a larger majority in the House of Commons. The UK will still be set on a Brexit course – and one where May will still insist the UK will set its own migration policy and will not come under European Court of Justice rules, so a softer Brexit may not be on the cards.

In the end, the election will cement Theresa May’s domestic position for the next five years. And it makes a vote against the UK-EU27 exit deal in autumn 2018 even less likely. But it will change the dynamic of the UK-EU27 talks rather little, even if May might find agreeing a transition deal easier if her ardent Brexiteer wing is less powerful (depending on the make up of the new cohort of Tory MPs).

The UK’s political cracks will, anyway, continue to widen. With Labour in melt-down and a push for independence in Scotland, the simmering political and constitutional crises provoked by Brexit will not go away. The election matters – but in the context of the UK’s deep political disarray it may also be much ado about nothing.

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