Brexit means what Theresa May says it means

20 Apr 2017


Theresa May’s decision to call a general election on 8 June is timed to minimise disruption to the negotiations with the EU. The early stages were always going to be about modalities - about who will participate, what they will discuss and when - and that can still happen in the run up to the election. The serious discussions, requiring high-level political backing, will need to wait until the new German government is in office after elections there in the autumn.

But May’s decision will nonetheless have implications about the outcome of the negotiation. Forget all the stuff about uniting the country and the effect that the British vote will have in the EU. The former is just an election pitch and Brussels does not really care about the size of May’s majority.

The real effect will come in two forms. One is because it will mean the negotiations reach a conclusion when May is no longer facing a threat to her job in the form of an election. This will take some pressure off her and create a bit more political space to make difficult compromises, as has already been widely noted.

The other, which is potentially more significant, is how the election will shape the UK’s policy position in the negotiations. May is likely to use the election process to spell out what she thinks Brexit should mean and then to secure the backing of the British people for this, ensuring that neither Conservative back-benchers, the Labour opposition, nor the Lords can block her.

Theresa May enters the election in a position of great potential power. She is expected to win a large majority against a feeble Labour opposition. That cannot be taken for granted, but it is likely. It will give her a strong personal mandate for government. And this means that what she does or does not put in the party manifesto will carry great weight for the next five years, including in the Brexit negotiation.

She has, of course, just set out her approach to Brexit in speeches, a government white paper and most recently in the letter triggering Article 50. But this position is vague in many areas. That is deliberate for two reasons. One - the publicly stated reason, which is also at least partly true - is because she does not want to show her hand in the negotiation. The other, is because before now she has had to strike a careful balance to bring the country and her party with her.

The election changes that. If she wins a big majority, she will no longer be dependent on her MPs for power; they will become dependent on her for their political careers. And if she asks ‘permission’ from the British public during the election for her preferred approach, she will secure a five-year license to do Brexit her way.

So this means May must now decide how bold she wants to be in shaping Brexit - or at least the British vision that must then survive negotiation in Brussels.

She can choose where she wants to soften or harden the UK position in important areas. It would be wrong to assume that she will only seek to move in one direction. More likely we will see a bit of both: a good dose of realism, combined with a dash of May’s own policy preferences.

She might also choose, or be forced, to reveal her hand in other areas. The domestic policy consequences of leaving the EU have not yet been spelt out in any detail, in important areas such as immigration and agriculture. It’s unlikely she can get through an election campaign without explaining to the public what her government’s policy will be in both areas, and perhaps others.

By 9 June, assuming May is back in 10 Downing Street, Brexit won’t just mean Brexit, it will mean what Theresa May says it means. At least, that is, until the hard negotiating begins in Brussels.



The views expressed in this note can be attributed to the named author(s) only.

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