Britain Needs To Get Its House in Order to Prepare for EU Exit
by Yasmine El-Geressi
The process of Britain leaving the EU will be one of the key issues debated by leaders in the run up to the elections on June 8. Theresa May previously ruled out an early election because Britain needed “stability” during the Brexit process. She claimed that anti-Brexit MPs are “trying to stop us every step of the way”, she insisted, which is making it “harder for us negotiating with Europe”. The main parties all accept that the UK is leaving the EU, but they want to put their stamp on Bexit negotiations. Some back leaving the single market and others say that there is a way to stay in. UK parties now have 5 weeks in which to formulate their campaigns and convince voters that they can offer the best future for Britain. In a sense, the snap election will become a second referendum on Brexit. Therefore it is highly likely that political parties view’s on Brexit will have a big impact on the election.
WHERE DO THE MAIN POLITICAL PARTIES STAND ON BREXIT
The Conservatives – 330 seats
Conservative MPs were given the freedom to campaign on either side of the EU referendum last year, although most were in favour of staying in the EU. Former prime minister David Cameron argued for Remain and resigned from his position following the result. Prime Minister Theresa May campaigned for Remain, but not as fiercely as some other senior colleagues and was described as a ‘reluctant Remainer’ by many. She now says there can be no turning back and that “Brexit means Brexit”. The reason she gave for calling a general election was to strengthen her hand in negotiations with the EU, in which she plans to withdraw the UK from the single market and strike a new free trade deal.
The Labour Party – 229 seats
The majority of Labour MPs voted to remain in the EU, but following the country’s decision to leave, leader Jeremy Corbyn now says the result must be honoured, provided workers’ rights, access to the benefits of the single market and four other tests are met. It has also ruled out a second referendum on the final deal, but wants MPs to have a decisive say on what happens once negotiations are complete. Many of Labour’s MPs have been elected in seats which backed Leave, meaning the party’s constituents disagree with their MPs on the issue. Labour’s dwindling support and perceived lack of clarity over issues such as Brexit could be the primary reason behind May’s snap election. The biggest impact Labour will have is it wins more seats than expected, suggesting that its stance on a softer Brexit deal resonates with voters.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) – 54 seats
The SNP holds the vast majority of Scottish seats in the House of Commons -54 out of 59 – and its leader Nicola Sturgeon has been pushing for Scotland, which voted to remain in the EU, to have a special status after Brexit, including remaining in the single market. She has called for a second independence referendum before Brexit has been finalised. Sturgeon said Scotland needs to be “protected” from the Conservatives who have “no mandate” against “a hard Brexit” and “deeper cuts”.
The Liberal Democrats – 9 seats
Since the result of the referendum was announced in June last year, the centrist Liberal Democrats have been the party most consistently opposed to Brexit. They reject the Conservative offer of a “disastrous hard Brexit” and have repeatedly called for a second referendum on the final Brexit deal. They say they will fight with “every fibre of their being” to protect existing aspects of EU membership, such as the single market and the free movement of people. They are selling themselves as the only party that can stop Brexit and are betting that a stringent anti-Brexit message will give them momentum. A big gain in seats could make Theresa May reconsider taking a harsh stance on Brexit talks with the EU.
The UK Independence Party (UKIP) – 0 seats
The The far-right, anti-EU party with arguably the clearest position on Brexit, UKIP leader Paul Nuttall has vowed to “hold the government’s feet to the fire” on Brexit and will be hoping to take votes from Labour in areas that backed Leave. UKIP currently have no seats in the House of Commons and the party played a key role in the EU referendum on June 23, but the question is whether the the party’s longstanding anti-EU message has the same resonance with the 52% who voted for Brexit.
WILL THE ELECTION AFFECT BREXIT NEGOTIATIONS?
The European Union has said negotiations for the UK’s exit will go ahead as planned despite the snap election announcement. The spokesman for Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, said the other 27 EU states will press on with the negotiations as planned.
He said “We expect to have the Brexit guidelines adopted by the European Council on 29 April and following that the Brexit negotiating directives ready on 22 May. This will allow the EU27 to start negotiations.”
Inevitably the elections add an additional layer of uncertainty to an already uncertain process and talks between Britain and the EU are likely to suffer some interruptions. However, since The European Council needs to finalise the structure of the negotiations which won’t happen until June 22 and the fact that negotiations are unlikely to begin until after the elections in France and Germany have been held, there may not be any major delay to the Article 50 negotiations .
So what happens if the Government is re-elected? When Theresa May made the bold move to hold a snap election she was cruising to victory, with a massive lead of 21 points over Labour, but a YouGov poll found last week that the gap had already shrunk. However, her current 17 point gap, still points to a sweeping victory come 8 June. If the results of the opinion polls translate into votes, an increased majority and an unencumbered mandate will allow May to stamp her authority on the conduct of the Brexit negotiations.
Many commentators think that Theresa May will use her increased power to nullify the influence of anti-EU backbenchers in her own party who are pushing for a “hard” Brexit. Others say that her slim majority means that she is beholden to those on both the left and right who want to shape her strategy but May wants to make the necessary Brexit compromise on her own terms.
A victory in a snap election would push the next scheduled general election off by two years, to 2022, providing the government with more breathing space to conduct the Brexit negotiations over the coming two years plus another three years to gradually leave the EU through a transition deal. That means that free movement of people and single market membership can continue in the short term.
And if the Government is voted out? Jeremy Corbyn’s path to power would be one of the greatest surprises in British politics. But unlikely doesn’t mean impossible. Jeremy Corbyn has ruled out a second referendum but is likely to push for a “soft” rather than “hard” Brexit. Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer has stressed that there are key dividing lines between Labour’s approach to Brexit and that of the Conservatives. He said Labour would guarantee the rights of EU nationals to stay in the UK on day one, adding that he was sure this would lead other countries to make similar guarantees for UK citizens in the rest of the EU. Starmer also said Labour was clear that “no deal with the EU is the worst possible” outcome of talks, while May has said the UK has to be prepared to walk away if the terms are not good. However, some speculate that those within the Labour party would see this as an opportunity to reopen the debate and explore whether the UK could remain in the EU.
WHAT DOES THE ELECTION MEAN FOR THE POLITICAL LANDSCAPE IN BRITAIN?
The snap election is no gift to the UK’s opposition parties. The SNP risk losing seats due to the party’s landslide haul of 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats in the 2015 General Election which can scarcely be improved upon and the rising Conservative Party. But, if they do win the Scottish portion of the election, its mandate for a second tilt at independence will be greatly strengthened. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon said “In terms of Scotland, this move is a huge political miscalculation by the Prime Minister. It will once again give people the opportunity to reject the Tories’ narrow, divisive agenda, as well as reinforcing the democratic mandate which already exists for giving the people of Scotland a choice on their future.” She framed May’s decision as an election designed to destroy Labour in England: “That means that this will be – more than ever before – an election about standing up for Scotland, in the face of a right-wing, austerity obsessed Tory government with no mandate in Scotland but which now thinks it can do whatever it wants and get away with it.
UKIP faces the challenge of proving it is not “yesterday’s party”, having already achieved its principal objective of victory in the Brexit referendum.
Pro-European parties may seek to appeal to those who voted to remain and those who have since changed their stance on the union by pledging to overhaul Brexit proceedings. For the Liberal Democrats, the election present a real opportunity to significantly advance their positions if they focus their campaigning on a pro-EU agenda, in the hours after May’s announcement, they gained 5,000 new members.
This shifting landscape leaves the path open for an entirely new government, the snap election has resurrected talk of a “progressive coalition” to defeat the Conservatives, comprising Labour, the Lib Dems, the Green Party and the SNP. While internal divisions within the Labour party suggest that leader Jeremy Corbyn would be unlikely to secure a win, a coalition agreement could throw the Conservatives off course from another five year term. The co-leaders of the Green party announced that they had approached Corbyn and the Lib Dems’ Tim Farron about the possibility of forming a “progressive alliance” between the three centre-left parties but Jeremy Corbyn openly rejected the notion of an alliance.
The British public have reason to be disillusioned by the UK political system, which has undergone more upheaval in recent months than some previous decades. Although Theresa May leads current polls, if 2016 has taught us anything, it’s that the current political climate is volatile and that there is no such thing as a political certainty.