Now that was unexpected. The election outcome took everyone, including Jeremy Corbyn’s inner circle, by surprise. And it reignited the very discussion that the prime minister had hoped to put an end to. Not that this necessarily means — as numerous observers have claimed — that a “soft Brexit” is now the most likely outcome. But Brexit has become an issue again.
The summer after the referendum was dominated by the Brexit adjective war. We heard of hard Brexit, soft Brexit, chaotic Brexit, red white and blue Brexit, and others. This was because the binary decision we were asked to make on June 23 concealed a plethora of choices.
For the sake of clarity, hard Brexit implies leaving the single market and customs union. Soft means remaining in both. Let’s refer to a situation in which the UK remains in one of the two as squidgy.
Perhaps Theresa May’s most striking achievement as prime minister before the election was to singlehandedly shut down the debate over what Brexit could and should mean. From the Conservative Party conference last year, the prime minister made it clear that she knew what Brexit meant — and for her it meant leaving the single market and the customs union. While no majority existed, in parliament or the country, for any particular Brexit outcome (hard or soft or Remain), her government and her party, went along with her tamely. Hard Brexit came to seem inevitable.
The point of the election, as I’ve argued before, was not, as Mrs May tried to persuade us, to strengthen her hand in Brussels. The EU was never about to make concessions simply because there were more Tories in the House of Commons. Rather, it was about ensuring that disunity at home, and especially in parliament, would not threaten the legislative programme Brexit necessitates and, above all, would not lead to the rejection of the deal she comes back with next autumn.
Indeed, the so-called Brexit election contained next to no debate about Brexit. For the prime minister, the point was to claim that she was best placed to negotiate with the EU, not that we needed a conversation about what Brexit should mean. For Labour, the fewer mentions of the issue the better.
As the results started to come in, one prominent interpretation was that the outcome represented a rejection of a hard Brexit. I do not see it in those terms. The Tories unambiguously backed leaving the single market and customs union in their manifesto.
Labour, for their part, hardly set themselves up in opposition. Their manifesto promised the impossible: an end to free movement while retaining the benefits of the single market. Mr Corbyn’s few references to the issue during the campaign did little to convince me he knew what the single market was — tariff-free access to the single market is really not the point. And there’s no guarantee that a man whose effectiveness during the referendum stood in marked contrast to his election campaign can be persuaded to expend energy over Brexit.
The campaign itself hardly served to shift debate from hard to soft Brexit. Nevertheless, it changed everything. For one thing, Mrs May will now be weaker. As Elmar Brok, a senior German MEP, put it, the prime minister will now be unable to make compromises. Given that any shift in the EU position will need the approval of all member states, this hardly bodes well for flexibility and compromise in the discussions to come.
It is at home, however, that the problems will be most acute, albeit far too early to know how things will play out. The first issue here is parliament. Both major parties are divided over Brexit. Whether this becomes salient as they are called on to pass Brexit-related legislation, we simply do not know. The Commons contained a significant majority of Remainers after the referendum, but this did not stop them voting overwhelmingly in favour of triggering Article 50.
So what, precisely, does it mean to say there is a majority in parliament in favour of a softer Brexit? That these are people who would prefer such a thing, or people who would actively work for it? Remember, soft Brexit would require an acceptance of freedom of movement, as single market membership is not possible without it and both parties promised in their manifestos to end it.
All this being said, the government cannot now count on smooth passage for the various bits of primary legislation it will need to pass regarding issues such as agriculture, or immigration.
More importantly, the precarious government majority casts real doubt over the prime minister’s ability to get the approval she has promised to seek for whatever deal she strikes in Brussels. It is hard to see how an already weakened leader, assuming she is in post after the summer of 2018, could survive defeat on this vote.
So we are back to the pre-election conundrum. There’s no reason to suspect the parliamentary Labour Party will amend its pre-election position of rejecting any deal that does not provide the benefits of membership. Tory opponents are now circling as well.
The prime minister may see it as in her own interest to manufacture a collapse in the talks to avoid the possibility of defeat in the House. In this sense, at least, the election makes a chaotic Brexit more likely.
Finally, the election may change the dynamics of government in the country. The prime minister’s insistence on a hard Brexit revealed her willingness to sacrifice economics to political considerations. Reports from meetings between ministers and business representatives regularly stressed the stubborn refusal of the former to compromise on the prime minister’s Brexit vision.
This was all well and good when Mrs May was a winner. What choice was there for the CBI or representatives of the City or university vice-chancellors under such circumstances but to suck up whatever the government was willing to feed them?
Now, however, things are different. Can a weakened prime minister afford to alienate business? If not, regardless of parliament, will she have to water down her approach to Brexit, given the strong preference of the various trade associations for single market and customs union membership?
It is far too soon to say with any certainty what the election means for Brexit. But it does change the probabilities.
The prime minister will face greater pressure to adapt her uncompromising stance, which might lead to a “softer” outcome. Yet, equally, the threat of parliamentary resistance might tempt her down the most reckless path of all.