British voters have spoken, but nobody has any idea what they said. One thing is clear, however. Theresa May has lost control, while the UK’s position on what it wants to achieve by leaving the EU is as unfathomable as ever.
When Theresa May called a snap election in April, it was a nakedly opportunistic move.
The opposition Labor Party was in disarray, 20 points behind the Conservatives in the polls. Their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, did not command the loyalty of his MPs and had only held on to his position because of a grassroots rebellion against the party’s leaders.
The UK Independence Party (UKIP) essentially had no raison d’etre anymore. The one-issue party had gotten their wish – Britain was leaving the EU. The Scottish National Party (SNP) looked to be in trouble in Scotland as well. May saw an opportunity to hoover up Labor, UKIP, and SNP votes and give her perhaps the largest majority in UK history, making the country effectively a one-party state. It would be a big improvement from her existing situation, having inherited a razor-thin majority government from David Cameron.
But things did not go according to plan for May. She proved to be one of the worst campaigners in recent British memory, committing a litany of errors including refusing to participate in a televised debate and performing a U-turn on social care. More generally, she seemed uncomfortable on the campaign trail and awkward with voters.
The result was a political earthquake. Though they had been set to pick up as many as a hundred seats at the start of the campaign, the Tories lost twelve seats instead. They are still the largest party, but May lost her majority. She is now scrambling to stay in power by allying with the ultra-conservative Northern Irish Protestant party the DUP. Many people in her own party are calling for her to resign. George Osborne, the former chancellor she sacked after taking over from Cameron, has called her a “dead woman walking.” Corbyn has said she must call another election. Snap polling this weekend by Survation showed he could win.
It is in this atmosphere that Brexit talks are set to begin in one week’s time. But few in Brussels believe today that talks will begin on June 19 as planned.
Two months ago May was expected to vastly increase her political power. Her claim that a great election victory would give her a stronger mandate in the Brexit negotiations was always dubious; to her EU counterparts, it would have made little difference. But her demotion from a majority to minority government, inconceivable just two months ago, will have a profound impact on these talks.
Right now the EU doesn’t even know who will be conducting the talks. And they don’t know if the negotiating mandate is going to suddenly change. Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Tories who saved May from complete annihilation with their shock wins in Scotland, has said May must change tack and pursue a more “open” Brexit. The DUP, on which May is also now reliant, is sending out mixed signals, demanding on open border with the Republic of Ireland while hinting that on-again, off-again UKIP leader Nigel Farage could be given a role in the negotiations.
The result makes a mockery of May’s campaign slogan of delivering “strong and stable” leadership. It is the worst possible outcome for the Brexiteers. “The EU is united, the UK is deeply split,” observed Manfred Weber, the leader of the center-right EPP group in the European Parliament and a close ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “Prime Minister May wanted stability but brought chaos to her country instead.”
Weber is right that the United Kingdom is clearly deeply divided. But anyone claiming this vote was a public rejection of Brexit would be way off the mark.
Corbyn, who was lukewarm in his support of the remain campaign last year (and who some suspect secretly voted to leave the EU because of his far-left views), promised during this campaign to not to reverse the referendum result. He said he would reverse course on May’s “destructive” plans for a “hard Brexit” (a complete withdrawal from the EU’s single market) but he provided no details about what he would do differently.
In fact, Corbyn promised that he would maintain May’s position of ending EU free movement rights in the UK – the right for all EU citizens to live and work in the UK if they can find a job. This meant that he would be in the exact same position as May, with no choice other than to pursue a hard Brexit. The EU has made it clear: no free movement, no single market access. John McDonnell, Labor’s shadow chancellor, over the weekend ruled out a Brexit deal that keeps the UK in the single market.
The only parties that were promising a second public referendum to stop Brexit – the Liberal Democrats and the SNP – did very poorly in this election. That might suggest that the majority of the public does not support halting Brexit. But at the same time, it appears that remain voters in cities massively backed Labor, many switching from traditional Conservative support, viewing it as the best way to stop Brexit.
Corbyn’s weak and vague position on leaving the EU was much-criticized, but it seems to have paid off. He picked up a large amount of the former UKIP vote who expect him to continue Brexit, while at the same time getting remain voters who think he will stop or soften it.
It had been expected that as UKIP collapsed in this election, the votes would go to the Tories. But many of these UKIP voters in 2015 were working class former Labor voters. With Corbyn promising to honor the referendum result, they decided to return to Labor in this election. At the same time, Labor picked up a large number of educated voters in London, many of whom usually vote Conservative, who voted remain last year and wanted to punish May.
Would Corbyn do Brexit differently if he becomes prime minister? For the moment the question appears moot, because even in alliance with the Lib Dems, Greens, and the SNP, Labor would not have enough seats to form a government. The only way Corbyn might become prime minister is if another election has to be called. That remains a distinct possibility.
Everyone’s a Loser
Nobody won this election. The voters have spoken, but what they said is entirely unclear. They didn’t reject Brexit, but they also didn’t support the government that is pushing for it. May said during the campaign that this was a Brexit election and implied that if she lost, Brexit would not happen. Despite her warnings, the public did not give her a mandate. Does this mean they don’t want Brexit? Nobody knows. The UK’s position on Brexit is as unclear as the future of the prime minister. For these two reasons, another election may be called in two months’ time.
Much of the British media has portrayed Brussels as rubbing their hands in delight, but the truth is they are doing anything but. The uncertainty introduced with this election now makes a smooth Brexit look practically impossible, which would result in political and financial tremors that reverberate across the continent. Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, reminded May in a tweet the day after the election that the clock is ticking. The UK must leave the EU by March 2019, unless both sides agree to call it off.
The political turmoil now means a likely delay of months until talks can begin in earnest. This is extra time that was not available. Nobody knows what comes next.