Conservatives fail to win enhanced majority for Brexit talks
On 18 April, UK prime minister Theresa May unexpectedly called a snap general election for 8 June with the intention of gaining an enhanced majority to strengthen her hand in the upcoming Brexit negotiations with the EU. At that time, opinion polls suggested the opposition Labour party was far behind the ruling Conservatives.
On 8 June, however, Mrs. May wound up losing her majority in the House of Commons. Strikingly, Labour gained around 40% of the vote and came in second, returning England to two-party politics. The Conservatives may have won just enough seats to be able to stay in power, although they would need the support of the DUP, the major Unionist party in Northern Ireland. It is unclear whether Theresa May will remain as Prime Minister.
A party needs to win 326 seats to guarantee an absolute majority in the House and the Conservative Party has fallen just short of that mark. If the party wants to remain in power, then the only viable partner would be the DUP, although a formal coalition is unlikely. It is not clear that such an arrangement has a lot of staying power or the capacity to pass any controversial legislation, so another election in the not so distant future looks quite likely to us.
The future of Theresa May
The result will be seen as a personal defeat for Mrs May. Having run a disastrous election campaign, there will be a lot of pressure on her to resign. In all likelihood she will spend the next 24 hours sounding out key figures within the party to establish whether she has their support to carry on, at least for the short run. However, it will be difficult for the Conservatives to form a government and strike a back-room deal with the DUP and begin the Brexit negotiations if there is a vacuum at the top and party policy is being debated in a leadership contest. It is worth keeping in mind that any leadership contest is likely to see a Eurosceptic elected Prime Minister.
Implications for Brexit
The kneejerk reaction to the general election result is that ‘soft Brexit’ is back on the agenda. The country did not give Mrs. May a mandate to pursue her hard-line strategy. Indeed, one of the areas in which the DUP is likely to extract concessions from the Conservative Party is over the Brexit negotiations, where the Unionists will push for a softer deal and in particular the least disruptive outcome on the vital political question of the land border between North and South.
In fact, it is hard to see how a hard Brexit deal would pass the House of Commons. However, there is one major sticking point. Can Mrs. May or any potential successor reboot the strategy on Brexit and sell a soft Brexit deal in the Conservative Party, with all the compromises on migration and the European Court of Justice that are anathema to many of her backbenchers? It is not clear how this tension will be resolved with the Brexit negotiations due to start in a matter of days.
Written 9 June 2017