And with one bound, they were not free. Prime Minister Theresa May’s aim in holding a snap General Election was to rack up a big enough majority to carry through the Brexit legislation, silence her critics within and without the Conservative Party, and to build political momentum going into vital talks with the EU 27 and the European Commission.
Needless to say, it has not all worked out like that. Via a combination of her own incompetence, a disastrously unpopular manifesto and some vigorous Labour campaigning, she has ended up worse off than she was before last Thursday: with no majority herself, and a working majority of only thirteen even via a Confidence-and-Supply agreement with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.
She has therefore lost a great deal of face in Brussels – not that many European leaders would have been that impressed even had she been returned with a three-figure majority, akin to Mrs. Thatcher’s in her pomp. But the real drawbacks to her failed gamble are domestic. The number of administrative and legislative moving parts in all this are so high, and connect to one other in such complex ways, that it must now be an open question as to whether Britain can free itself of most EU entanglements on any medium-term timetable.
Without a working majority, the Great Repeal Bill being readied to bring European regulations into British law will have a hard time getting through its committee stages in the Commons, and perhaps an even more torrid time in the Lords – the latter chamber feeling emboldened by the Government’s loss of its majority.
Without delegated powers to change the whole network of laws that touch on Britain’s EU membership, it seems hard to imagine how Britain can avoid a disorderly Brexit that opens up all sorts of legal loopholes and contradictions. The interim period that will almost certainly have to follow formal exit in March 2019 is probably lengthening by the day.
Then, when we come to the eventual deal, it is difficult to imagine this House of Commons voting to pay some tens of billions of euros to secure the UK’s access to those parts of the European structure it wants – research funding agencies, perhaps, Europol, or a bilateral deal on aviation access, just to pick a few examples out of the air.
Mrs. May (or, more likely, her replacement) is now at the mercy of any small group of backbenchers, and there are easily enough ultra-Brexiteers sitting behind her to frustrate any deal. The Conservatives could probably rely on Labour to push through any deal, but at the cost of a historic crisis on their own side of the Commons. The risk now is a real one: of a deadlock that only a new election can resolve.
That trouble reaches right across the political spectrum. Labour may be grinning like a Cheshire cat right now, rightly relieved to have avoided its widely-forecast wipe-out, but it has held the line in this election via a masterclass in obfuscation. It managed to give the impression that it was Remain in Remain areas, while promising voters across the Midlands and the North of England that Brexit was ‘closed’ as a live issue. Young idealists and core Labour voters saw in Jeremy Corbyn exactly what they wanted to see, as in so many other policy areas: that elision may not survive contact with actual concrete decisions.
The confused signals the party has given since the election are a case in point. Labour does not seem to want to remain in the single market, but its spokespeople continue to give the impression that it might, or that it might be able to take part in a ‘reformed’ single market which curtails totally free movement.
If France’s new President, Emmanuel Macron, cannot secure such single market reforms, then Labour might well end up looking pretty divided itself. If it ends up pushed into a corner and voting for a Hard Brexit – as it voted for Article 50 – then all those young Remainers who voted for them in Canterbury and Cambridge may vanish like a puff of smoke.
Even the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party – with much more settled policies in favour of the single market – face an uncertain future. The SNP lost 21 seats last week, and the Liberal Democrats gained only three overall. Many of the SNP’s own voters chose Leave at the referendum, and Labour’s delicate balancing act may have helped bring some of them back on side: the Liberal Democrats made little progress outside of very high-income and Remain-heavy constituencies such as Kingston, Oxford West and Abingdon, and Twickenham.
Both parties seem hemmed in for now. The SNP is torn between the aspirations of many liberal middle class Scots – for Scotland to be an independent member of the EU – and many of its recent working-class recruits from Labour. The Liberal Democrats made a grave mistake by emphasising the need for a new referendum on any Brexit deal, at a time when the electorate are very weary indeed of going to the polls.
Many voters seem to regard Brexit as a done deal. A majority of Remainers told pollsters that they believed the overall issue to be closed. Focus groups heard that Brexit was ‘settled’, and so other issues rose up the agenda. They often voted with more traditional issues in mind: Lord Ashcroft’s post-election polling shows that Brexit was third among the issues listed by Labour voters.
All the while, more deep-seated electoral changes have been proceeding, with blue-collar working class voters continuing to trend Conservative, and urban liberals continuing to pour into the red camp. These trends have now opened up a whole host of seats that will be in play during the 2018 or 2019 General Election.
All the while, a contrast between public perceptions and Brexit’s dawning realities has been yawning ever wider. Whoever holds power in the next few years will have a hard time meeting voters’ demands for better public services and a relaxation in austerity’s straitjacket.
Barring a clear overall majority for anybody, they will struggle even to keep any government’s business ticking over. Commons and Lords now face perhaps-intractable tasks of legislative complexity, with no really clear leadership emanating from Downing Street; new elections may be around the corner at any time; the consequences of a chaotic and train-crash Brexit, now more likely than ever, could well be even deeper cuts, while any backsliding on Brexit could lead to a populist resurgence akin to the United Kingdom Independence Party’s success in the last two Parliaments. The sequence of political detonations that we have lived through since the Scottish independence referendum shows no sign of letting up yet.
Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He is the author of a number of books on modern Britain, including The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain, published this month by Palgrave Macmillan. A frequent contributor to the national press, he blogs at Public Policy and the Past.