After election disaster, UK more likely to seek a softer Brexit

June 14, 2017

In last Thursday’s election in the United Kingdom, the Conservative Party increased its vote share by more than five percentage points, to 42.4 percent, more any other party, and won 318 seats in the House of Commons, also more than any other party. Nevertheless, the election can only be regarded as an unmitigated disaster for the Conservatives and Prime Minister Theresa May; it produced a “hung parliament” that deprived the government of the small working majority it had won in 2015.   

Two years ago, the Tories won 330 of the 650 seats in the House, enough to provide not only an arithmetic majority but, more importantly, a voting majority: Excluding the Speaker and three Deputy Speakers, who don’t vote, and the four Sinn Féin members, who didn’t attend, they had a working majority of 16 – narrow but certainly sufficient to govern.

But now, the Conservatives have lost that working majority; excluding the Speaker and his deputies and the seven members of Sinn Féin elected on Thursday, 320 M.P.s will be needed for a working, or voting, majority. As a result, the Tories face an unpalatable choice of either forming a minority government, forming a coalition government with another party such as existed with the Liberal Democrats in 2010-15, or agreeing on a “confidence and supply” arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland in which the DUP would agree to support the government on its program, to be presented in the Queen’s Speech, and in votes of confidence and on legislation pertaining to the budget and spending.

The outcome of Thursday’s election was the result of two campaigns that differed dramatically in their effectiveness. When May decided in mid-April, on the advice of her co-chiefs of staff Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill and political strategist Sir Lynton Crosby, to call a “snap election,” the Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, trailed the Conservatives by almost 20 points in polls. A large majority – one that would enhance her government’s bargaining power with the European Union over the terms of the British exit and ensure that the House would support whatever agreement she might negotiate – seemed to be a sure thing; she just needed to call an election.

But between April 18, when the election was called, and June 8 a quite remarkable development occurred: Despite being saddled with a hard left manifesto and leader, the Labour Party and, most surprisingly, its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, ran a strong campaign that dramatically reduced the gap between the two leading parties – so much so that, in the week before the election the large-n, six-day rolling poll conducted by YouGov predicted Labour would get 38 percent of the vote, only four percentage points less than the Conservatives, and the outcome would be a “hung parliament.” As it turned out, even that poll underestimated the vote for Labour; on Thursday, it received 40 percent of the vote, an increase of almost 10 percentage points compared with its vote in 2015.

The growth in support for Labour reflected the return, especially in the Midlands, the north of England and the south of Wales, of working-class voters who had defected to the UK Independence Party in 2015 and supported Brexit in last year’s referendum; the return of a portion of the voters in the urban and industrial core of Scotland who had supported the Scottish National Party in recent elections; the attraction of pro-Remain voters in London and the south of England opposed to May’s vision of a “hard” Brexit; and the substantial increase in turnout, especially of young voters attracted by Labour’s promise of tuition-free university education.

In contrast to the Labour campaign, that of the Conservatives was, in the view of many, including many of the party’s M.P.s, dreadful. They were saddled with a program written by the Cabinet Office that endorsed spending cuts for social programs and included a widely-derided proposal to require the elderly to spend almost all of their assets before receiving public assistance for long-term health care. The proposal, labeled by the media a “dementia tax,” was subsequently reversed in a rare mid-campaign U-turn. In contrast to Corbyn, May appeared ill-at-ease in campaign events, even in staged appearances, spoke in generalities about “strength and stability,” offered few specifics about policy, and declined to participate in several televised debates. Most importantly, she gave voters the unmistakable impression that she had called the election not to improve their well-being but rather her own and that of her party. As Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, put it, “She put her party before her country.” 

The Conservatives lost their majority in the House because they lost 25 seats in England and Wales. However, they did much better in Scotland, where their vote increased from about 15 percent to 29 percent and they won 12 new seats in addition to the seat they held in the outgoing House. The big loser was the Scottish National Party; while it remains the largest party in Scotland, its share of the vote dropped by 13 percentage points and it lost 21 of its 56 seats, including the seats held by its former leader, Alex Salmond, and its deputy leader, Sir Angus Robertson. Clearly, a good number of voters support the Scottish Conservatives’ unambiguous position that Scotland should remain in the U.K. whatever the results of the Brexit negotiation, in contrast to that of the SNP government that there should be a second independence referendum – “IndyRef2” – if the results diverge from its preferred outcome.

While welcome news for a government that found itself bereft of a working majority in the House, the success of the Scottish Conservatives nevertheless will complicate the government’s position in the upcoming negotiation with the EU 27. Reflecting the preference of the large majority (62 percent) of Scottish voters who supported the Remain option last year, the Scottish Conservatives, led by Ruth Davidson, support a softer “open” Brexit – one that retains Scotland’s commercial and financial ties with the EU, even if that requires acceptance of the free movement of EU citizens into the UK, rather than the “hard” Brexit outlined by the prime minister in her January Lancaster House speech.    

For many Conservatives, after Thursday’s election May’s likely tenure in office is no longer measured in years but, at best, in months. Anna Soubry, a former minister who held on to her seat by a narrow majority, told the BBC on election night the party ran a “pretty dreadful” campaign and that May should “consider her position.” George Osborne, the former chancellor of the exchequer who was ousted from the government when May became prime minister last July and is now the editor of the Evening Standard, went further, famously declaring that May was a “dead woman walking and the only question is how long she remains on death row.”  On the other hand, it seems increasingly likely that, although greatly weakened, May will remain prime minister at least for the time being; no one in the Cabinet appears inclined to challenge her for the leadership right now and no Conservative M.P. wants to go through another election anytime soon. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of barely-suppressed anger within the Conservative parliamentary party because of the prime minister’s ill-advised decision to call the election, her performance in the campaign and, of course, the outcome of the election.

The day after the election, Graham Brady, the chair of the important 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, conveyed those views to May and warned that unless her co-chiefs of staff were removed and she agreed to a more open style of governing that involved more consultation with the parliamentary party, her leadership might be challenged. On Saturday, the co-chiefs of staff resigned and on Monday, May met with the Conservative M.P.s, apologized for her conduct of the campaign and assured them she will change the way #10 Downing St. operates and will consult more widely and more frequently with the parliamentary party.

Meanwhile, on Saturday, the Conservative and DUP whips met in Belfast and reached a preliminary agreement on the principles of a “confidence and supply” agreement. On Tuesday, Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, met with May met at #10 and moved closer to an agreement; when completed, it will provide the government with a narrow working majority of 15.

While the agreement will provide the government with a working majority, the prospect of governing with the DUP is nevertheless troubling for many Conservatives and for others as well. Founded by Rev. Ian Paisley in 1971 as a rabidly-loyalist movement that supported the Protestant militias in the “Troubles,” for the better part of a decade the DUP rejected the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought the three decades of “Troubles” to an end, instituted a power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland, and offered the possibility of eventual unification with the Republic. Both former Prime Minister Sir John Major and the Irish Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, have warned the “confidence and supply” agreement could put the Northern Ireland peace process at risk. Talks aimed at restoring power-sharing by Sinn Féin and the DUP began this week and the British government is expected to act as an honest broker in the talks; that’ something it can’t credibly do if aligned with the DUP in a “confidence and supply” agreement.

The likely agreement with the DUP is, for many, morally troubling as well. Reflecting its religious roots in the fundamentalist and evangelical Free Presbyterian Church founded by Paisley in 1951, the DUP is conservative on a host of contemporary social issues. For example, it is opposed to same-sex marriage and, because of its influence, Northern Ireland, unlike the rest of the U.K., still prohibits same-sex marriage. Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, who is gay and engaged to her partner, said she asked Theresa May for “categoric assurance” that, if a deal is struck with the DUP, there would be “absolutely no rescission” of LGBTI rights in the rest of the UK and the government would use its influence to advance LGBTI rights in Northern Ireland. She said she received those assurances from May.

While the agreement with the DUP is politically and morally troubling for many Conservatives, it will, like the success of the Scottish Conservatives, add to the mounting pressure on the government to pursue a softer Brexit. Like the Scots, the DUP, mindful that 56 percent of those who voted in Northern Ireland in the 2016 referendum supported the Remain option, favors a softer Brexit than the one advocated by May in her Lancaster House speech in January. Mindful, also, of the extensive trade and commercial ties between Northern Ireland and the Republic and of the Common Travel Area between the UK and the Republic that has existed for nearly a century, the DUP supports a Brexit that provides for a “frictionless” border that allows the free movement of goods, services and people between the North and the Republic. Such a border could be achieved, of course, by retaining membership in the EU’s Single Market and its customs union. But that, of course, would require the UK to accept the EU’s principle of free movement of EU citizens.

On Sunday, May appointed Damian Green First Secretary of State and Minister for the Cabinet Office – in effect, the Deputy Prime Minister. Green, a senior M.P. who served as minister in charge of immigration and then of policing and criminal justice in the Home Office when she was Home Secretary and as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in her government, was one of the leaders of last year’s Remain campaign. His appointment, along with the retention of Philip Hammond who, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, is acutely aware of the enormous economic and financial costs to the UK of a “hard” Brexit, sends an unmistakable signal that a softer Brexit is back on the table as an option in the upcoming exit negotiations with the EU 27.

Assuming the Conservatives and the DUP reach an agreement on a “confidence and supply” arrangement, the existence of such an agreement with a party that supports a softer Brexit than the version articulated by the prime minister in January, coupled with the presence in the House of more than a dozen Scottish Conservatives who support a softer “open” Brexit, May’s weakened position in the party and government, the continuation in government of Hammond as chancellor and the important role of Green in the new government, increases the likelihood that, notwithstanding the substantial support in the Conservative parliamentary party for a “hard” Brexit, the Brexit that emerges from the UK-EU 27 negotiation is likely to be a softer variant. Perhaps, if that happens, last Thursday’s election will turn out not to have been such a disaster, after all.

David R. Cameron is a professor of political science and the director of the Program in EU Studies at the MacMillan Center.