May's bungled election opens way to 'soft' (or maybe no) Brexit

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder

All bets are off in the UK’s confused post-election political arena, write Giles Merritt and Shada Islam. But the signs are that the winners will be all who have argued for staying in the single market and abiding by the EU’s four freedoms.

 

Is Brexit still inevitable? A week ago, few would have put money on an overturning of “the will of the British people” to leave the EU. But in the chaotic aftermath of Theresa May’s snap election, all bets are off on the future shape and scope of Brexit, and even its long-term survival.

This isn’t to say that the Brexit process will be miraculously reversed; but it does mean that the UK government’s negotiating stance will change, and perhaps radically. Mrs May sought a mandate to pursue a ‘hard Brexit’, and that has been denied her.

Her decision to soldier on as prime minister despite her humiliating electoral defeat suggests she may try to pursue a ‘business as usual’ approach to Brexit. But behind Mrs May’s defiance, the undercurrents of British politics are pointing in a very different direction.

The result of the snap election isn’t to say that the Brexit process will be miraculously reversed

When Theresa May came to power in the wake of the Brexit referendum a year ago, she owed her position to senior figures in the Conservative party who had campaigned to leave the EU. Unless she jumped to their tune, she risked being ousted by a revolt of Brexiteer ministers and MPs.

Now it’s anyone’s guess how long she can hang on. Mrs May’s own interest is to be far more emollient over Brexit, not least because her aggressive anti-Brussels rhetoric of recent weeks clearly failed strike a chord with voters.

Where does this leave Brexit? It seems likely that the UK will perform the sort of U-turn for which Theresa May has become famous and reverse its position on the single market. An overwhelming body of evidence shows how economically damaging being outside it would be for the UK, and at last the British government will have to acknowledge this.

The new government in London will, however, need Brussels’ help if it is to change course without loss of face. Whether or not the formal Brexit negotiations start on schedule next week, the EU team led by Michel Barnier must quickly create a mood of sympathetic cooperation with the British. A first step might be to postpone discussion of the ‘divorce bill’ amounting possibly to €100bn. After all, the Brexit outlook is suddenly so fluid that perhaps a ‘soft Brexit’ might eventually lead to a reconciliation.

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